Kansas University’s loyal basketball fans were sure their beloved Jayhawks would earn a 2009 NCAA Tournament berth, despite the fact the Jayhawks lost all five starters off last year’s national championship team.
Some national pundits weren’t as certain.
Remember, KU was considered a “bubble team” as late as Jan. 10 when the Jayhawks returned from a 75-62 loss at Michigan State with an 11-4 record.
“We had some work to do, but it’s like that every year. You’ve got to play well in the league,” KU coach Bill Self said.
Though he wasn’t necessarily thrilled by losses to UMass and Syracuse in nearby Sprint Center ... “I said many times I thought we’d be a good team by the start of the conference season.”
The Jayhawks, in fact, resembled a great team during the 2008-09 Big 12 Conference campaign.
KU, which opened 8-0, had pretty much wrapped up a postseason Big Dance invitation by the halfway point of the 16-game league slate.
The Jayhawks kept rolling and went on to win the league with a 14-2 record.
Here’s a closer look at why the Jayhawks will soon be tipping it up in the NCAAs, not the NITs in a major reloading year.
The Jayhawks, who lost their top four scorers from the 2008 title team, averaged 77.5 points off 48.1 percent shooting during the regular season.
Last year’s NCAA champs averaged 80.5 points off 50.8 percent marksmanship.
The Jayhawks scored a plethora of easy buckets off lob plays a year ago.
This year, the squad implemented a more conventional attack.
Junior point guard Sherron Collins has both taken it to the basket as well as pulled up for 68 threes in 178 tries (38.2 percent) en route to a team-leading 18.3 points a game off 42.4 percent shooting.
He’s far ahead of last year’s leading scorer — Brandon Rush — who averaged 13.3 ppg before taking his game to the NBA after three seasons.
Sophomore center Cole Aldrich, meanwhile, has ruled the paint courtesy of an assortment of hook shots, layups and dunks. The 6-foot-11 Aldrich also has consistently stuck the free throw line-extended jumper while averaging 14.8 ppg off 60.1 percent shooting.
“I think it’s been a fast team. It’s unfair to say it’s as fast as last year’s team,” Self said. “I haven’t seen anybody shot out of a cannon running baseline to baseline like Shady (Darrell Arthur) yet.
“These guys can run,” Self added of the 2008-09 Jayhawks. “But there’s a difference between winning a gold medal and maybe qualifying (for Olympics). We are a better perimeter shooting team with our big guys than we were last year. And our big guys probably pass it every bit as good as last year. We’ve been able to stretch the defense, which opens up opportunities to drive the ball.”
Led by Collins and Brady Morningstar (48 of 106 for 45.3 percent from three) as well as super sub Tyrel Reed (45 of 113 for 39.8 percent), the Jayhawks swished 199 of 520 threes during the regular season for 38.3 percent compared to a a 39.7 mark (271 of 683 treys) a year ago.
“We’ve been pretty efficient,” Self said.
“Brady and Tyrel both know they have the green light to shoot beyond the arc when open. As a team we’ve committed some turnovers (14.7 compared to 13.2 turnover average a year ago) but a lot of them are from getting sped up and unforced (sign of a young team).”
Self likes offense, but defense, of course, is what defines him as a coach.
And his squad’s ‘D’ has been excellent this season.
KU allowed 65.6 points off 38.6 percent shooting during the regular season compared to opponents’ 61.5 points off 37.9 percent marksmanship a year ago.
KU has outrebounded foes by a margin of 38.8 to 31.5, compared to last year’s mark of 38.7 to foes’ 30.8.
“Our first-shot defense is something we stress. Our first-shot defense has been excellent,” Self said. “We stress allowing one or less shots per possession. For the most part we do that.”
KU totaled an average of 7.0 steals per contest during the regular season compared to an 8.9-steals-per-game mark of a year ago. The Jayhawks forced an average of 15.6 turnovers per game last year to this year’s 14.0 mark.
“We don’t extend like last year’s team could,” Self said. “There’s not the consistency as in years past. Some things we could do last year ... gamble and miss and not get hurt as much. To gamble and miss would put Cole in harm’s way.”
Self did not expect a batch of steals this season.
Mario Chalmers, a first-year sensation with the Miami Heat, led the way with 97 steals a year ago. Russell Robinson, who is playing for Reno in the NBA Developmental League, was second on the team with 79 thefts.
“We are not the same defensive team as last year because we do not steal it as often. Mario has a knack for it. Nobody on our team has a knack like Rio. Russell had it too. We’ll get better at that,” Self said, indicating Tyshawn Taylor (35 steals in regular season) has potential to become a strong defender.
“We miss three guys who could really move their feet and play on the interior as well,” Self added of Arthur, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun. “Our defense is not as good as last year, but our numbers are not bad.
“We’re scoring at a clip comparable to past teams here. Our defense is not as tough or creative as teams in past years. But we’ve definitely made strides of being a good defensive team.”
Morningstar has been the unofficial MVP on defense.
“Right now our best defender is Brady,” Self said. “I don’t know if Brady can get to the point where Brandon did because of size. Brady is smart. He’s done a good job on other teams’ good players.
Self admits he had to switch his demeanor a bit in working with eight newcomers.
“I don’t know if I changed a lot. I think I changed in that I had to,” he said. “We fans, coaches, players have been kind of spoiled. Kansas fans over time have been spoiled.
“You are playing with such a high level college basketball player. Last year we had a combination of toughness, athletic ability, skill, experience. We had a nice squad. Those guys had been around me three or four years.
“They had heard most of my rhetoric. They could coach themselves and police others. Early in the year, when we wouldn’t play well, in my mind I’m thinking, ‘We still need to play to last year’s level.’
“I had to realize I had to enjoy the process as much as our players. I had to realize, ‘We’ll get there. It takes time. Life by an inch is a cinch; life by the yard is hard.’ To take that approach. I’ve enjoyed seeing us grow when I initially wanted to see us grown.
“I’ve not backed off our guys. We’ve been demanding with them,” Self continued. “They are competing harder, getting tougher. It’s not been a big change. In my mindset going to work we don’t need to be what last year’s team was. All we need to be is what this year’s team can be.”
Self gives credit to his better half — wife Cindy — who discussed his patience or lack of it with KU’s coach early in the season.
“She can see the big picture as opposed to what is directly in front of you,” Self said. “Sometimes coaches can get emotional with their thoughts, that ‘this isn’t going to work’ or whatever. She was, ‘Hold on. How do you know? You’ve not given it a chance.’ When you have an emotional person, it’s nice to have somebody more grounded to offset that. I tell her all the time she is a good judge of character. She says, ‘You are not happy with him (a certain young player). But I know in my heart he’ll get it.’ She’s very good at that. We don’t talk X’s and O’s at all.”
Self rediscovered that he truly enjoys coaching young teams.
“If I could put one thing on it, it’s a mindset of getting them to understand every possession counts,” he said. “Everything you do matters. In high school if you miss three in a row, big deal. If a team scores on you big deal because we learned in a very positive way some hard lessons, that big games come down to one or two possessions. They’ve learned a lot as we’ve gone along.
“These guys may not be superstar guys like we had when Mario, Brandon, Julian (Wright) and Micah Downs were coming in as freshmen. There were no McDonald’s All-Americans in this group. But they’ve worked hard and been really really fun to coach.”