When 11th-year Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self evaluates young talent, he ranks “hard-to-guard” as among the most important qualities he seeks. He struck gold with this team in that regard.
So quick and strong, sophomore forward Jamari Traylor has the ability to check a variety of players, even if he is struggling with guarding them without fouling under the new rules. I figured he would be a good one to ask about what makes his teammates a challenging matchup in practice every day.
“Go through the roster,” Traylor said after a practice shortly before the season started. “I’ve definitely guarded everybody already.”
The most difficult assignments for him?
“Quick guards like Naadir (Tharpe), Frank (Mason). Conner (Frankamp) is a crafty guard,” Traylor said. “Brannen (Greene) has a jump shot you have to respect. Wayne Selden is an animal. (Andrew) Wiggins, I don’t need to say much about him. He has a great first step. Very athletic, quick. Guy like Tarik (Black), strong. Perry (Ellis), very crafty, finishes at the rim great. His footwork. (Shakes his head.) Joel Embiid and Landen Lucas, so big and strong.”
Traylor called Selden and Andrew White III, “the most physical guards that you’ll find. These guys are physically fit. Wayne, he’s just like a man-child out there. … He attacks the rim like nobody else on the team.”
White didn’t do much of that last season, but has improved.
“When you’re strong and physical like that, you don’t really get guys with that touch,” Traylor said of White. “He can really shoot it. When you close out too quick, he can attack the rim. He’s getting better at putting it on the floor.”
Traylor paused and summed it up: “This team’s definitely stacked.”
The young Jayhawks are loaded with scorers who know defensive improvements are needed if all those points can translate into six victories in a row in the NCAA Tournament. Sure, the rules make it tougher to defend. Michigan State was whistled for 27 fouls against Kentucky, but that didn’t force the Spartans to back off. They challenged every dribble in the post, every pass in the half court, and rode 13 steals to victory in a game Kentucky won the battle of the boards, 44-32.
High school players don’t defend anywhere close to the demands of Self and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans’ experience advantage makes them better defensively than Kansas, but with anticipated improvements from young and talented UK and KU, Duke and a handful of others looking loaded, Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds of the tourney promise a Final Four feel.
“I think this is going to be an unbelievable year for college basketball,” Self said after the United Center doubleheader. “There is an unbelievable freshman class and it appears to me there’s potential to have more great teams than what we’ve had in recent memory.”