Team Preview: Kansas Jayhawks
By: James Jarvis
Coach: Bill Self, 273-54 at Kansas (480-159 overall)
2011-12 Record: 32-6 (16-2 in the Big 12); National Finalists
Many years ago—as a means of fully investing myself in an NCAA basketball tournament that I had, until then, only admired from afar—I decided I needed to choose a team to root for. Lacking a personal, familial or geographic link to any of the NCAA basketball programs, I did what anyone in my position would do and based my decision on whichever team shared its name with the most influential Alternative-Country band. Say what you will about my system, it led me directly to the Kansas University Jayhawks and I have been a fan of the perennial title contenders ever since.
Strongside: This year, the boys from Lawrence find themselves in familiar territory. Despite losing star power forward Thomas Robinson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor to the first round of the NBA draft, the team sits comfortably in the top 10 in most rankings. Obviously, the continued high expectations for this year’s Kansas team speak to the almost absurd depth of the program, and some are even saying that the 2012/13 edition of the Jayhawks may boast an even greater depth than the squad that made it to a National Championship game a year ago.
For most schools, the loss of Tyshawn Taylor, a four-year starting point guard capable of pouring in 16 ppg, would represent a near-impossible hole to fill. But this is Kansas, and last season Elijah Johnson scored an average of 10.6 points (not to mention a 15.1 ppg average in the final eight games of the season) and turned the ball over almost half as much as Taylor. All of which suggests that though Johnson has struggled in the first six games of the season, he has the tools to not only replace his predecessor’s offensive output but to effectively handle playing the point. If, however, Johnson fails to make the necessary adjustments, Coach Self has a fundamentally solid senior in Travis Releford and a promising sophomore in Naadir Tharpe that he can turn to. Add to that the fact that working this year with Johnson et al. will be 6’5’’ power forward Ben McLemore, who was primed to make a splash in last year’s tournament but was redshirted for academic reasons, and the Jayhawks should have a backcourt as good as any in the country.
Not to be outdone, the Kansas frontcourt will be patrolled by two players hoping to emerge as stars this season. Jeff Withey showed last year that he could dominate defensively, leading the league in rejections and setting the NCAA tournament record with 31 blocked shots. Setting a team record with 12 blocks against San Jose State early in the year would seem to indicate that Withey has picked up right where he left off defensively, but the success of his season will be determined by whether or not he can develop the offensive side of his game. Helping Withey down low will be 6’8’’ forward Perry Ellis. Ellis, a hometown hero, is considered by some to be the most talented freshman on the squad, but it will be interesting to see if the raw athleticism of Jamari Traylor can be refined enough for this young high-energy player to make a significant impact on Coach Self’s team.
Weakside: The story going into this season is how Kansas was going to be able to replace the cavernous hole created by the loss of Thomas Robinson. In his final season with the Jayhawks, Robinson complemented a prodigal 17.7 ppg with an average of nearly 12 rebounds. Unsurprisingly, replacing Robinson will be Coach Bill Self’s biggest challenge, and ultimately, success for Kansas in this year’s tournament could come down to whether or not Jeff Withey can be relied upon to consistently provide points in the paint. After six games the big man has shown the potential to do just that, leading the team with 14.2 ppg. However, this small sample also comes with an ominous indication of Withey’s inability to handle stronger opposition, as the seven-foot big man center was limited to just eight points in an early upset loss to Michigan State.
All told: Jayhawks fans will be keeping an eye on how Elijah Johnson settles into his role as point guard and whether or not Withey can score against premier teams in the paint. But even on the off chance that both these players fail to perform, the overall depth of the team should ensure a deep run in the tournament come March, providing further evidence that my Alt-Country team rating system will work as long as the Jayhawks play in Kansas or at least until Princeton changes their name to the Fighting Wilcos.