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Jeff Withey leads group of motivated Jayhawks
|Visit the online store for Kansas and other editions of the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual.|
The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals have arrived on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 4 Kansas.
It’s hard to imagine a team losing a top-five NBA Draft pick in the paint and a four-year starter at the point and somehow getting better. But that’s the scenario facing the Kansas Jayhawks as they enter the 2012-13 season.
On the heels of their thrilling run to the 2012 national championship game, Bill Self’s squad returns several key pieces from last year’s team and will look to replace leading scorers Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor with one of the deepest and most talented recruiting class of the Self era.
Although the talent is in place — isn’t it always at Kansas? — Self’s biggest challenge will be getting the group to mesh while also relying on new leadership.
Top returners Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey will get the first crack at leading this year’s Jayhawks, who figure to enter the season more motivated than ever.
“I think (that) experience will only make us more hungry for next year,” Withey said of reaching the 2012 title game but falling to Kentucky. “We’ll have a great team, and I’m really excited for the opportunity to be a leader.”
Withey was a force defensively in his first season as a starter at KU. He set a record with 31 blocks in the NCAA Tournament and finished the year with a Big-12-best 140 rejections. This season, he will be asked to contribute more on the offensive end.
“I don’t think I was too much of an offensive threat last year,” Withey says. “A little bit here and there, maybe, but not what I’m capable of. So for next year, offensively, I’m going to try to get better and stronger and try and look like T-Rob. That’s the game plan.”
Is that even possible?
“I could see that happening,” senior forward Travis Releford says. “Because that’s how it’s been in the past. Guys leave, other guys step up. It’s going to continue to be like that at a program like Kansas.”
Joining Withey up front will be impact freshman Perry Ellis, a four-time Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year, along with Kevin Young and redshirt freshman Jamari Traylor. Young, a former transfer from Loyola Marymount, averaged 3.4 points in his first season at KU. Traylor was academically ineligible last season but practiced with the team.
After his breakout NCAA Tournament, Johnson takes the reins at point guard. Like Taylor, his predecessor, Johnson is an athletic guard with good size and toughness. Unlike Taylor, Johnson seems to be a better decision-maker and a more natural shooter. The Las Vegas native played extremely well late last season, averaging 15.1 points in the final eight games and scored in double figures in all six NCAA Tournament games.
Ben McLemore, a 4-star recruit in the Class of 2011, was forced to sit out last season because of academic issues. Self has said that McLemore, a possible starter at shooting guard, might have emerged as the team’s top pro prospect had he played last season.
Releford, like Johnson, played well in the NCAA Tournament, scoring in double figures against Purdue (10 points), North Carolina (11) and Ohio State (15). Seldom-used early in his career, he emerged as a key cog in his first season as a starter.
Freshmen Anrio Adams and Milton Doyle and sophomore Naadir Tharpe will push for playing time. Adams, a shooting guard from Seattle, has been compared to Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. “He can certainly score,” Self says. “He’s capable of being an elite guard.” Tharpe arrived as a highly regarded recruit but failed to crack the rotation as a freshman last season.
Last year’s squad survived and thrived because of heart and will, but this year’s team figures to benefit from different strengths. Chief among them is depth, something the Jayhawks had little of a season ago.
While KU’s roster will give Self plenty of options, it also figures to provide a few growing pains as nearly half of the rotation could be first-year players. In addition, Self’s bench will feature two new faces — Norm Roberts steps in for his second stint at KU to replace Danny Manning (now the head coach at Tulsa), and Doc Sadler, formerly the head coach at Nebraska, takes over as the director of basketball operations. Self doesn’t seem to be concerned.
“I love the makeup of this team, especially the newcomers,” says the veteran coach. “This is going to be a young group that will rely heavily on senior leadership.”
Athlon College Basketball Countdown So Far:
19. Notre Dame
15. San Diego State
14. North Carolina
11. NC State
10. Michigan State
8. Ohio State