So. That 2011-2012 season was pretty spectacular, huh?
It had a very "Danny and the Miracles" feeling, right?
The only difference was last season's Jayhawks were a top 10, (top 5 really...) team all season long. It was rarely pretty. Sometimes it was just painful. But they won games, and they just kept winning games. Led by two of the best individual seasons in recent memory, and a remarkably healthy roster of complimentary players, the 2011-2012 Jayhawks fulfilled the promise that the previous season's team, which was both more talented and much deeper, could not.
So what did we learn from the 2011-2012 season? Well if we didn't already know it (and who didn't?) we now know for sure that Bill Self is one of the 5 best coaches currently going, who knows how to get the most out of every player on the roster.
Thomas Robinson had ridiculous expectations for a 14 minute per game 7th man, and he faced double teams and collapsing zones throughout the season, but Self (and departed big-man coach Danny Manning) expedited Robinson's development from a promising prospect to a full-fledged-force. Thomas' is an inspiring story that as Kansas fans we are all aware of, but that should not cease to amaze us. I am constantly in awe at the drive that this young man has to take care of the family he has left, primarily his kid-sister. When being interviewed at the NBA draft, someone asked how he felt to be the number five overall pick, and instead of celebrating or being in awe of his own accomplishments, he said, in true T-Rob fashion, "I've got more work to do." I can only hope we amass a roster of players with half of his heart and drive.
Tyshawn Taylor was much maligned, and in some ways rightly so. He didn't help his case against his slew of detractors when he got off to a rocky start in big-time losses to Kentucky and Duke. The crunch time turnover (his 11th?) against Duke could have defined Taylor's season and set him back permanently as an un-harnessed weapon, but the coaching staff did not waiver in their confidence in Taylor. They kept running him out there, for 35 minutes a game, and he started to deliver. He figured out how to harness his speed, and he found an outside shot. Most importantly, I think, he figured out how to be a leader on the court. His energy and effort were unmatched on the roster by anyone not named Thomas Robinson. Mario Chalmers turned himself into a career pro with one shot, and while Taylor's rise was not as meteoric, it may end up being just as profound. He'll be fun to keep an eye on as he starts his career with the semi-hometown Brooklyn (nee New Jersey) Nets. (Non-arena-compatible)
But there were other players besides these two. Connor Teahan was the sixth man. I'm going to repeat that because it bears repeating. Connor Teahan was the sixth man, on a team that made it to the national title game. He doesn't warrant much discussion other than acknowledging that he, you know, played in the games. He did "steady hustle guy" things, he just didn't do them anywhere near as well as Tyrel Reed or Brady Morningstar did them. Also not appearing this year will be the graduated Jordan Juenemann and the transferred Merv Lindsay.
Two returning guys who will be heavily counted on for both tangible production and intangible "other stuff" are Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson. Releford takes over the "elder statesman" role formerly held by Teahan, Morningstar, and Jeremy Case. Releford is a jack of all trades, master of none type. He can defend well, but has trouble slowing down quick guards. He shoots jumpshots just okay. He has thrown down some monster dunks, but is rarely explosive in traffic. His free throw shot looks about as awkward as my 9th grade formal. But, being around Bill Self longer than anyone else on this roster, he knows what to do. He knows where to go. He knows where everyone ELSE should go. He also has that knack for making big plays when the team needs it the most. Self described him as being the best "old man" in the league. He wouldn't be out of place on a 1950's era team, other than the massive shorts and hi-tech sneakers. Due to the influx of talent at the small forward position (in the form of Ben McLemore and Andrew White), I wouldn't be surprised (or really, disappointed) to see Releford's numbers stay about where they were last year. 9 points, 4 boards, 2 assists, 1 steal, all in 30 minutes a game. If he emerges into a double digit scoring threat, I'm not going to complain. Unless its because someone else got hurt. Then I'll complain. A lot.
While consistent production from Releford would be welcome, I have higher aspirations for Johnson. The prophet really elevated his game down the stretch, as Taylor's outside shot disappeared into the abyss of giant arenas of the NCAA tourney, and we finally saw some flashes of the player who was ranked 24 (I think?) in his high school class. Johnson had a few games where you were just like "STOP SHOOTING IT". He has a tremendous ability to frustrate fans with his willingness to settle for a jumpshot instead of using the quickness that we all know he has. When he's hitting half of his 3's this isn't too bad, but when he's like 1 of 8 and refuses to dribble the ball into that thing called the paint I just want to scream into a pillow. I'm counting on Johnson to be a 1st-team all-league guard, so something like 17 points per game, 6 assists, 3 boards, 2 steals. Shucks, I'm hoping he's better than Taylor was, which I think he can be. He makes better decisions with passes, but he needs to stop bordering on being too tentative. I think Taylor might be the better defender and faster player, but Johnson is definitely more athletic, and is a better actual player of basketball than Taylor was.
Most important to this year's team was last season's development of Jeff Withey from "tall man on basketball team" into "basketball player". It remains to be seen how he handles being the focus of the opposition's interior defense, the loss of world-class big man developer (and forever the holder of the "Best Modern Era Jayhawk Basketball Player" title) Danny Manning, and the lack of anything resembling an experienced front-court teammate. All signs point to Withey being a double-double machine who also completely destroys both his own single-season blocked shots record as well as Greg Ostertag's career blocked shots record. I'm hopeful that Withey can be in the neighborhood of 17 ppg (bolstered by his 80% free throw shooting) 12 rbg, and 4 bpg. To me anything above that would be totally gravy, and anything below that, especially in the rebounds and blocks department, would be a bit of a disappointment. (It should be duly noted that nobody would be close to either if blocks were kept as a statistic in Wilt Chamberlain's college days. If venerable retired Lawrence Journal World reporter Bill Mayer is to be believed, Wilt averaged approximately 300 blocked shots per game.)
Okay. Those three guys are expected to be steady (1st-Team all big 12 in the case of Johnson and Withey) performers who give you 30+ minutes a game every night. They did it last year, and we expect some growth. That makes sense. The rest of the returnees are a bit of a crapshoot.
Can anybody honestly tell me what to expect from Kevin Young? He's small for a power-conference big man. He sometimes looks like he's in the game just to foul even if there's 15 minutes left in the first half. There are four new big men who all are probably better basketball players, but all aside from Traylor have the disadvantage of being brand spanking new and not having a year of Self's system in their brains. We all know how much Self values experience. Young also got a chance to play internationally with Puerto Rico's national team. He had some flashes last year. Honestly, I think his role will diminish throughout the year as the freshmen bigs get more experience. I'll give him 4 points, 4 boards a game. Anything more probably means our young bigs aren't developing and Young is the 7th man the entire year.
Justin Wesley. I'll say three quick things about Justin Wesley. 1) He is basically this decade's version of Bryant Nash. 2) Hopefully he learns how to act like Wilt Chamberlain on a basketball court while he's doing this movie. 3) Every time I think about him, it just makes me miss how awesome Keith Langford was/is. If Wesley plays regularly, I think its a bad sign for this team. That isn't really a knock on Wesley, but he's on this team the reason the nerdy kid makes it into a frat: legacy.
Naadir Tharpe. Here is my hope for Tharpe: He turns into Russell Robinson. Remember that Russell struggled mightily his frosh season, playing 10 mpg, only appearing in 2/3 of the games, and he even considered transferring if memory serves me right. Bill Self hates inexperience, especially with his guards. He'll play an inexperienced big because he has to, but if he has 4 healthy guards and one of them looks like a deer in headlights on the court, the other 3 guards will play all 40 minutes. I also fondly remember how completely lost Michael Lee looked his freshman year, and he turned into a solid contributor by the time he was done. I honestly think Tharpe has more talent than that, but I think he could be anything from a 9th man buried behind the starters plus Anrio Adams on the depth chart, or he could be a part time starter/6th man type in the guard rotation with Johnson, Releford, and McLemore. I. Just. Don't. Know.
I have Thomas Robinson's 2011-2012 campaign as the best by a KU big since Collison's 2002-2003 season which, oddly enough, also ended in a National Championship loss. Tyshawn Taylor showed incredible growth (finally!) throughout the season, and was arguably the best all-around point guard in the country during the conference season. Both of these players are gone, along with the 6th man (as insignificant as he may seem). That is a lot of minutes to replace. I've discussed what I expect (or don't) from the returning players, but who will replace the departed? It remains to be seen which of the slew of young players will step up to fill the void. I'll take a look at all of those fresh faces in my next entry.