Bill Self isn’t sugarcoating the situation. After a 35–3 season and an NCAA Tournament run that ended a win shy of the Final Four, the Kansas basketball coach can’t see his 2011-12 team being any better than last year’s Big 12 championship squad. But that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks will take a step backward, either. “I think we’ll take a step sideways,” Self says.
That certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing in Lawrence, where Kansas has won seven straight Big 12 titles and averaged 33 wins over the last five seasons. Equaling that success in 2011-12 will be a bit more difficult. NBA Lottery picks Marcus and Markieff Morris are gone along with one-and-done Josh Selby and savvy veterans Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed.
Still, even with only one returning starter (point guard Tyshawn Taylor), the Jayhawks are confident that the emergence of forward Thomas Robinson and the offseason strides made by players such as Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford will keep them in the hunt with Baylor, Texas A&M, Missouri and Texas for the top spot in the league standings.
Key Jayhawks Stat: 4
In Bill Self's eight-year tenure, the Jayhawks haev suffered four postseason losses to teams from mid-major conferences. Bucknell (2005), Bradley (2006), Northern Iowa (2010) and VCU (2011) all defeated KU in the NCAA Tournament.
Robinson likely would’ve been a first-round pick in the NBA Draft had he chosen to leave school. Instead, the 6'9", 237-pounder will spend another season enhancing his game under Jayhawks big man coach Danny Manning, who has helped develop seven post players into draft picks in the last five years. The 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds Robinson averaged last season are underwhelming until you consider that he played only 14.6 minutes off the bench. Robinson is a chiseled, athletic specimen who uses his power game to score on worn-down opponents. He and Baylor’s Perry Jones enter the season as the top two candidates for Big 12 Player of the Year.
The problem is that, beyond Robinson, Kansas is as thin in the post as it has been in Self’s eight years in Lawrence. Jeff Withey is a 7-footer who has been limited to mop-up duty the last few seasons. Justin Wesley, the half-brother of former Jayhawks standout Keith Langford, sat out last season after transferring from Lamar, where he averaged 1.2 points as a freshman. Luckily, Self was able to sign 6'8" swingman Kevin Young during the spring. Young started for two seasons (2008-10) at Loyola Marymount before taking a year off to attend junior college. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
The Jayhawks aren’t as deep on the perimeter as they’ve been in the past, but they certainly tout a strong one-two punch in Taylor and Johnson. Hailed as one of the fastest guards in the country, Taylor is entering his fourth season as a starter. He averaged 9.3 points and 4.6 assists on a loaded team in 2010-11. His biggest task this season, though, will be taking over the leadership role that was left vacant by the Morris twins. Taylor has had a handful of minor off-court incidents during his time in Lawrence, but his attitude and work ethic were impressive at the end of last season and over the summer. Johnson — who was stuck behind Taylor, Reed, Morningstar and Selby as a sophomore — may have improved more than any Kansas player during the offseason. His 3-point shooting stole the show in the Jayhawks’ annual alumni games and, defensively, he’s proven to be a pest.
The 6'5" Releford was a highly touted recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks, but he’s had to wait his turn behind other talented players with more experience. Now he’ll get his chance as Kansas’ small forward. He’ll likely be pushed by incoming freshman Ben McLemore, the jewel of Self’s 2011 recruiting class. While he’s certainly a talent, McLemore is viewed as a “project player” who may take some time to adjust to the structure and X’s and O’s of Self’s system.
This will be far from one of the best teams of Self’s tenure, but KU will still be good enough to contend for a conference title in what appears will be a down year for the Big 12. Along with a lack of leadership and experience, one of Kansas’ biggest obstacles will be surviving a brutally tough non-league schedule that includes a trip to the Maui Invitational as well as tilts with Kentucky, Ohio State and USC. If Self’s players can make it through that gauntlet with their confidence intact, they’ll be more than capable of doing some damage in the NCAA Tournament.
Big 12 Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16