In the aftermath of Kansas’ 74-73 loss to Dayton on Friday, there seemed to be only one question KU fans were asking:
Why, up one with 30 seconds left, did KU coach Bill Self decide on a play call that got the ball to struggling forward David McCormack in the post, where he turned it over on a charging call?
The actual answer is nuanced, and I’ll explain why in a second.
But you first need to know this about the turnover: When Self turned to the scorer’s table and slapped both hands on it in frustration, sending a ballpoint pen flying onto the court, he wasn’t mad at McCormack.
Instead, he was angry at guard Remy Martin.
“We had one player kind of run to the wrong spot,” Self said afterward, “so the play is dead.”
It’s essential to understand the context here because Self’s intent in running this play is not to have the ball thrown to McCormack at 12 feet in a post-up setting like what happened.
Instead, it’s to get him an easy shot without a defender behind him, which will lead to the type of easy baskets Self has opened up for his big men the last 19 seasons in Lawrence.
On the rewatch, KU has what it wants. McCormack has his man pinned. If Christian Braun throws this pass to the corner of the backboard as he’s taught, McCormack catches it without a defender between him and the goal.
While McCormack has struggled lately, this is a play he can and should finish. In similar situations this year — via Synergy Sports Technology — McCormack has averaged 1.5 points per possession.
The problem was that Martin didn’t execute. He was in the wrong spot, and when the pass was open, he dragged his defender behind McCormack, meaning one misstep ruined the other four players’ actions.
Because of all that, McCormack reposts and gets the ball outside the lane. And no, Self did not dial up the play hoping that McCormack could go Karl Malone in the post to save KU at game point.
Take a step back further, though, and this also illuminates something bigger going on that led to Self’s decision in this moment.
Many times in the past, this would be a spot where Self would clear the floor for his point guard and let him go to work. He didn’t do that this time.
And that seems like an intentional thing, especially with one long-term vision in mind.
Start with this about Self: He wants control. And further, one of his great strengths over time has been to gather talented players before getting them to play unselfishly for the good of the team.
One of Self’s favorite mantras he uses with his team: “When you win, the pie is big enough for everyone.” In other words, if you buy into your team role and win, everyone benefits from that success.
So let’s be blunt here: Self has not yet gotten through to Martin.
For most of the final five minutes when KU was trailing, Martin resorted to playing heroball. But, in all honesty, it was part of what kept KU from taking the lead sooner, as Martin missed on a couple of critical possessions while firing up before giving offense a chance to work.
If this continues, it could fracture a team. Remember, KU returns four starters from a team that was pretty darned good in February and March last season before running into the USC buzzsaw. Having a newbie step in this year while believing he’s above KU’s team-based concepts, then, has the potential to create fissures in what might otherwise be solid chemistry.
Self has discussed this before, with these quotes from earlier this month speaking to this tenuous dynamic.
“I don’t want to take away his freedom by any stretch, but I don’t want his freedom to take away from the other four guys playing,” Self said of Martin on Nov. 3. “So we have to kind of get that figured out, and we haven’t quite done that yet.”
From that same day: “It’s been an adjustment for Remy. There are things that we value more than what he values, and there are things he values more obviously than what we do.”
Fast forward to today, and Self said the loss could help KU grow as a team.
He didn’t specifically say he was talking about Martin, but, well, he was.
“I do think there’s some things that have happened through some experiences like this that will probably accelerate the learning curve and give us maybe get us to all buy in a little bit differently,” Self said. “I think the way that we kind of see the game right now, in some people’s eyes, is when we’re behind or when we’re struggling, an individual needs to go try to get it back right as opposed to the team trying to get it back right. So, we can learn from that. Those are mistakes that are correctable.”
Martin has other areas he can help too. His on-ball defense has been an issue the last two days, and when Dayton needed a basket down three with a minute left Friday, it went one-on-one against Martin — and got a layup.
The critiques here might seem a bit harsh, especially considering the on-court results; KU was statistically a much better team with Martin out there against Dayton, and his ability to make tough shots will be an asset as the season goes on.
For a day, though, Self believed Martin hadn’t done enough to earn taking that last shot against Dayton. He’d played a bit selfishly in previous minutes, so rewarding him after that by giving him the keys to the car again was not the direction Self chose.
It didn’t work. KU lost.
Two points are worth repeating, though: The play wasn’t supposed to go to McCormack where it did.
And it probably won’t go to McCormack at all in the future ... if and when Martin sees things the way that Self wants him to.