Is It Finally Time to Bet Against Kansas Winning the Big 12?
We’ve certainly been here before.
Kansas basketball faces some adversity in January and there is chatter that its streak of Big 12 titles will finally come to an end, only for the Jayhawks to pull through and win the league again. They have won at least a share of the regular season conference title for 14 consecutive seasons, so you’re excused if you’re growing tired of this pattern.
However, you would also be forgiven for thinking this time is truly different. Despite ranking 13th in our power rankings, the Jayhawks (16-5, 5-3) have struggled lately, losing three of their last four games and going 4-4 since losing center Udoka Azubuike for the season.
The junior has been one of the nation’s top interior scorers -- sixth in two-point percentage -- and defensive players -- with a 16.7 box plus-minus -- since arriving on campus, and Kansas has certainly felt the impact of his absence (more on that in a bit).
Two teams -- Baylor and Kansas State -- are ahead of Kansas in the conference standings (albeit by a half-game), while two totally different teams -- Iowa State and Texas Tech -- rank ahead of the Jayhawks in KenPom's adjusted efficiency margin.
The betting market actually thinks it is more likely than not that the Jayhawks’ conference title streak comes to an end.
Is this the year someone finally takes the Big 12 crown from Kansas?? Now available @CaesarsPalace! pic.twitter.com/YQlmNWuXCE
— Matt Lindeman (@lindetrain) January 30, 2019
After accounting for the vigorish, these odds imply that there is about a 54.3% chance Kansas does not win the Big 12. Is that accurate?
The Azubuike Effect
Kansas has played in 9 games with Azubuike this year and 12 without. He started the first seven games of the season before spraining his ankle and missing the next four games. The junior played in two games after that but then hurt his wrist in a practice injury that cost him the remainder of the season.
When he has started, the Jayhawks are 9-0 and have outscored opponents by 12.3 points per game. In the other 12, they are 7-5 with just a +1.8 average scoring margin.
While Kansas has faced a tougher slate of opponents in his absence, the difference is not as drastic as you might imagine. In nine games with Azubuike, their opponents had a median KenPom rank of 41, compared to a median rank of 32 in the other games.
His absence has cost the Jayhawks on both sides of the court in a number of facets of the game, as we can see in these numbers from Sports-Reference.com’s Play Index (I calculated the number of possessions using the standard formula of FGA + 0.475*FTA - ORB + TO; these figures do not include team rebounds).
|Kansas Offense||Points Per Possession||eFG%||TO%||ORB%||FTA/FGA|
Kansas’ offense has been worse in all Four Factors without Azubuike, and with the exception of offensive rebounding the difference has been dramatic. The drop in effective field goal percentage is almost entirely the product of a massive dip in two-point percentage, as Kansas shot 54.8% to 51.5% with and without Azubuike.
The uptick in turnover rate is likely due to factors besides Azubuike (he had an individual turnover rate of 19.3% this season, per KenPom), but the Jayhawks are missing his ability to draw fouls (despite his 39.4% career free throw percentage).
|Kansas Defense||Points Per Possession||eFG%||TO%||ORB%||FTA/FGA|
Things have also been worse on defense, even though the unit has continued to play at a high level -- opponents are turning the ball over less, shooting better from the field, getting to the free throw line more often and grabbing a lot more offensive rebounds.
It is not hard to see an Azubuike-sized hole here, as since his freshman season he is seventh in the Big 12 in defensive rebound rate and eighth in block rate (among players with at least 500 minutes in this span). The Jayhawks’ interior defense has still been good in his absence (46.2% two-point percentage allowed), though it was even better with him (44.6%).
The significant decline in eFG% owes more to a 3.2% increase in opponents’ three-point percentage (from 31.9% to 35.1%), but given the volatility of three-point defense, it would be prudent to chalk this up to expected regression to the mean, rather than Azubuike’s absence.
Why the Streak Can End
The KU team without Azubuike is what it will be going forward, and as the numbers show, this is a team that has some deficiencies.
The Jayhawks are seriously undersized without him, as 6’8” Dedric Lawson is their only other player averaging more than 10 minutes per game and taller than 6’5”. Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, has been Kansas’ best player, but the team’s other big-minute players have not produced at nearly the same level.
Guard Lagerald Vick has scored efficiently but has also been plagued by turnovers (61.4% true shooting percentage, 21.8% turnover rate), while freshman point guard Devon Dotson also has more turnovers than assists.
Highly-touted freshman forward Quentin Grimes has been perhaps the biggest disappointment and is last among rotational players in box plus-minus (+1.6).
Their margin for error going forward is slim, given the strengths of the Cyclones and Red Raiders, while red-hot Baylor has also played its way into the mix. It will be a tough road with two matchups against Tech and one against Baylor remaining.
Why the Streak Can Continue
All that said, bet against Kansas getting another conference title at your own peril. This is still an immensely talented team with one of the most accomplished coaches in the nation, and one that has still played at a very high level this season.
Even if we just look at their games without Azubuike, Kansas has three “Tier A” wins (Villanova, Baylor and Iowa State) and three more “Tier B” wins (Tier A is a game against a Top 50 opponent after adjusting for location, while Tier B is a top-100 win after location adjustment), according to KenPom.
If you prefer the NCAA’s terminology and NET Rankings, Azuibuke-less Kansas has four Quadrant 1 wins and three Quadrant 2 wins (they also beat Wofford in a Quadrant 1 game that Azubuike only played four minutes in).
There has been a lot of hand-wringing over the 4-4 record in their last eight games, but each one of them was a tiered game by KenPom's standards. Three of the losses were in Tier A and the other was a one-point loss at West Virginia. This stretch also includes a pair of Tier A wins, including a 15-point victory at Baylor.
Once we adjust for the caliber of opponent, it is apparent that Kansas has still been playing at a high level. According to Bart Torvik’s T Rank, the Jayhawks actually rank 25th in the nation in opponent-adjusted efficiency margin since this eight-game stretch began.
If this was their nadir, that is bad news for the rest of the conference. We could be looking at yet another Big 12 title for Rock Chalk, so take advantage of plus-odds while they're ripe for the taking.