Interchangeable guards capable of initiating and leading the offense have been as much a part of Bill Self’s tenure as Kansas University basketball coach as sarcastic one-liners and 30-win seasons.
Having Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins on the same team meant Self always had two point guards on the floor on the 2008 national-championship team.
Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, both hybrid guards, led Kansas all the way to the 2012 national-title game.
Outlet passers didn’t have to search for just the right guy to lead the break. They had options.
Self’s 10th Kansas team features a deep frontcourt stocked with skilled big men, athletic bodies, shot-blockers, bangers and shooters.
It’s in the backcourt where this edition will have a different look than his last seven teams.
“We’ve got some talented kids back there, but getting the pieces to fit, it’s a lot easier making the pieces fit if you’re playing with two point guards than it is when you’re playing maybe with half a point guard,” Self said. “To put our best team out there right now, you’re looking at a team that’s not a great ballhandling and passing team. There’s going to be some pressure on Elijah to play well this year.”
It’s not too difficult to find reasons to believe Johnson will be up to the task. He’s a blur leading the break, has a good feel for where the ball should go, has a nice passing touch and limits careless turnovers.
After that, when looking at the likely starting five of Johnson, Ben McLemore, Travis Releford, Perry Ellis and Jeff Withey, it’s a little unsettling to try to identify the second-best ballhandler.
“It’s probably Travis,” Self said. “But Ben’s getting better. But that’s the whole thing, we’ve always had guys who can make plays out there. Even on our championship team, we had three point guards out of our four perimeter players.”
Taylor had his wild moments, but he had Johnson’s steadying influence on which he banked.
“Those two combined were terrific,” Self said. “When you’re taking Tyshawn out of the equation, and adding Ben as far as playing the majority of the minutes, you gain so much in maybe shooting and size and that kind of stuff, but you do lose that guy who can just break a defense down and go make a play. That’s why Elijah has to get better and I think he will.”
Sophomore Naadir Tharpe and talented but wild freshman Anrio Adams will push for time backing up Johnson and at times playing alongside him.
“Right now if I was nervous about a position, it would be our point-guard play, just because it’s not as natural for Elijah, Naadir’s unproven and Anrio’s never done it,” Self said.
Naturally, Self’s ever-intense mind is pondering ways to maximize the efficiency of a backcourt that, at least compared to most of his, has an unconventional makeup.
“We don’t really change much how we play, but we tweak a lot more than what people think,” he said. “In the past, I didn’t care who fed the post. Now we might have to set it up where Elijah’s the one feeding the post, much like we did with Aaron Miles because we had a similar type situation with Aaron, Keith (Langford) and J.R. (Giddens). You know, it’s kind of similar.”
Self will do more than reflect on those days. He and assistants Joe Dooley, Norm Roberts, Kurtis Townsend and director of operations Doc Sadler will look closely at what worked well when having one primary ballhandler instead of two on the floor.
“We’ll go back and look at some of that film to see how we utilized putting Aaron in as many positions as possible to finish the plays,” Self said. “We haven’t had to play that way lately, but I could see us doing it more this year.”
They’ll figure out a way to make Kansas a top five team, but along the way will look sloppy at times, throwing the ball away before it gets into the hands of a powerful dunker or a shooter with a soft touch.