By Michael Donovan

Villanova plays Kansas in the NCAA national semifinal tomorrow night in San Antonio, and the question must be asked:

Can the Jayhawks’ defense contain the Cats’ explosive offense?

The Kansas defense, a hallmark of Bill Self’s tenure as head coach, sits at No. 42 in the nation, far behind such luminaries as Central Florida, Evansville and Old Dominion, schools that didn’t even qualify for the NCAA tournament.

And Villanova has averaged nearly 87 points per game this season and made the third-most 3-pointers of any team in men’s Division I history, routinely shredding any defensive unit that dared to stand in their way.

“I think the key to having a great season is winning when you don’t play well, and the only way you can do that is if you make other teams play bad,” Self said. “And I don’t think that we have been good at that for the most part.”

Generally speaking, teams that don’t defend very well don’t fare very well in the tournament. Since 2002—as far back KenPom’s data goes—the average Final Four participant ranked 15th in the nation on defense coming out of the Elite Eight. Teams that won the championship, on average, ranked 11th.

Over that span, only four Final Four teams had a worse defense than this year’s Kansas squad: Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in 2011—two of the more unlikely Cinderellas in tournament history—as well as Texas and Marquette in 2003.

But in spite of all that, a defense that Self described after a January loss to Texas Tech as “average at best” somehow hasn’t stopped Kansas from succeeding. KenPom considers the Jayhawks the eighth-best team in the country, thanks in part to an offense that ranks fifth nationally. Kansas, a No. 1 seed in the tournament, has won its last seven games, including an overtime thriller over Duke in last Sunday’s Elite Eight.

Against Villanova, the Jayhawks will need to play even better.

“I do think our defense has improved quite a bit since early February,” Self said. “We know we’re going to have to be great on that.”

The question now is how Kansas has managed to win anyway, even as its defense has lagged. The answer has to do with a radical shift in strategy to compensate for a lack of depth, particularly in the sort of frontcourt options that usually define Self’s teams.

The Jayhawks typically field tall, long, defensive-minded rosters. This crop isn’t that. So last season, Self embarked on a bold experiment, putting four guards in his starting lineup. The decision in effect sacrificed some defensive strength for scoring punch, and it worked: Kansas earned a No. 1 seed and advanced to the Elite Eight in last year’s tournament with the 24th-ranked defense and fifth-ranked offense.

Those deficiencies on the inside continued this season, when Kansas found itself without the 6-foot-10 Billy Preston, a top-10 recruit who wound up leaving the university without playing a game amid NCAA-eligibility concerns. The four-guard lineup remained, highlighted by leading scorer Devonte’ Graham, a 6-foot-2 senior.

Some opponents have taken advantage of the Jayhawks’ defensive vulnerabilities. Going into his team’s first game against Kansas this season, Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton said he recognized the Jayhawks lacked the interior depth they had in the past. Therefore, they couldn’t afford to send starters to the bench. (Self used just two reserves in Kansas’ win over Duke last weekend.)

“[Self] is protecting his guys from foul trouble,” said Boynton, whose team went 2-1 against Kansas this season. “Especially Devonte’ Graham can’t pick up fouls. So they can’t be as aggressive as maybe they once were. So they back off in terms of pressuring.”

What little size the Jayhawks do have, they haven’t always been able to count on. Seven-foot sophomore Udoka Azubuike has averaged 23.5 minutes a game this season, nursing injuries or shuttling to the bench with foul trouble. In Kansas’ last two games, he fouled out.

In December, Arizona State scored 95 points against Kansas in a 10-point victory. The Sun Devils’ coach, Bobby Hurley, said they were able to get inside against the Jayhawks’ small lineup, which ultimately led to openings around the perimeter. Arizona State connected on 14-of-28 3-pointers that day.

“We were able to penetrate and get in the lane,” which opened up the outside shot, Hurley said. “Kansas just couldn’t annihilate us inside like Arizona would try to do to us in our league play.”

More often than not, however, Kansas’ unusual lineup has paid off, a testament to Self’s coaching prowess. Whether it works against Villanova is another story.

“He’s been able to adapt and play a totally different way than he’s played the last 20 years,” Boynton said.

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