LAWRENCE, Kan. — She was an Armani suit jacket over bib overalls, blue bloods with calloused hands and skinned knees, a contradiction in high-tops. The Kansas men’s basketball team of 2011-12 was old money, yet old-school; born on second base, yet digging like Lenny Dykstra for third.
After January 4, the Jayhawks played in 26 tilts. They won 22 of them, a wild, unexpected ride that ended in the national championship game. After January 4, Kansas allowed 59 points or fewer 10 times, and won all 10 games. After January 4, Kansas recorded eight steals or more in 10 different contests, and won all 10. After January 4, Kansas notched more or the same amount of second-chance points as its opponent 16 different times. The Jayhawks went 15-1 in those tilts.
“So if you don’t turn the ball over, and you outrebound your opponents and you get 70 percent of the 50-50 balls, you’re going to win, because you’ve stolen a lot more possessions.” coach Bill Self offered Thursday during the team’s annual preseason media day session, the preamble to this evening’s Midnight Madness soiree — ‘Late Night In The Phog’ — at Allen Fieldhouse. “And that’s something this team has to be great at.”
Last winter’s team were beyond great in that regard; they practically made it a mantra. As Kansas teams go, part of the charm of last season’s bunch was that they were more steak than sizzle, more gritty than good, more about elbow grease than entitlement. They maxed out what they had, because they knew they had to. It was substance over flash, a Porsche program that played like Chevy Silverado.
But the key cogs of that mystique — power forward Thomas Robinson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor — are in the pros now. Of all the questions facing the reigning Big 12 champs, one of the biggest is this: Who steps up to fill the toughness gap?
“I personally think that slack gets picked up from Travis (Releford), me, a couple more people,” senior guard Elijah Johnson countered. “There’s some attitude on the court.
“Don’t think that Thomas was the only one. Thomas loves the cameras, so, if he could get those cameras in front of him, you’d see some stuff — you know, he might rip his jersey off. That was just T-Rob. He likes to express himself and have fun in the process of doing it. But that doesn’t mean we lost attitude. At all.”
And yet they did lose 55.2 percent of their points, 49.8 percent of their rebounds, 54.9 percent of their free-throw makes and 43.5 percent of their steals. T-Rob might’ve been doing some of that snarling and scowling and post-dunk screaming for show, but it was one hell of a show.
“The thing about Thomas, what was so great was, if he got one mitt on the ball, he got possession of it,” Self allowed. “I mean, he was a fierce, tough, competitive rebounder. He was unbelievable at 50-50 balls … He gave us an air of toughness that made other players think they were tough and all that fierce because he led by example. That’s something we’ve got to get our guys to buy into.”
Jeff Withey’s already hooked. The 7-foot swat machine’s squatting more than 25 pounds more than he was a year ago at this time, and his power-clean’s up at least 50 pounds. After averaging 3.6 blocks per contest a year ago, he elicited feelings of mass annoyance all over the Big 12. For the next step, can he bring out actual, tangible fear?
“I feel like Jeff can do that,” guard Travis Releford said. “He can step up and do that. I think he did it last year with blocking shots; he made guys feel like, ‘Oh, I can’t go in the paint, so I’m going to stay out here and just shoot it.'”
But of the seven players 6-foot-8 or taller on Self’s roster, four — or more than half — are freshmen. And one of them, Zach Peters, is battling rotator cuff problems in his left shoulder. You don’t build a Big 12 body, a Big 12 mindset, overnight.
“Oh man, T-Rob (was) definitely a beast, but defensively, I feel like I was more intimidating than him,” Withey said. “So offensively, I feel like he was extremely intimidating … he was the No. 5 pick in the (NBA) draft, you’re not going to be able to completely just replace what he did on the court. But we have guys that can definitely come in and make an impact. Like Justin (Wesley) has gotten a lot stronger; he’s intimidating, too.”
The Jayhawks will find scorers; they’ll groom scorers. For scorers to thrive, you need a few enforcers, too.
“So I’ve really tried to implement that into my game,” the 6-9, 220-pound Wesley said. “That’s just my whole goal this year, is just be more aggressive in everything I do.”
In drills. In scrimmages. In the weight room. Especially the weight room. Wesley figures he’s squatting 360 pounds now, more than 45 pounds above last fall.
“Me and Thomas talked about this,” the junior recalled. “During the (NCAA) tournament, I used to watch him and how aggressive he was, how intimidating his presence was. And I really wanted to take on that persona of just being more aggressive than the person across from me.”
But you’re such a nice guy …
“Yeah,” Wesley replied. Then he grinned. “Off the court.”
Three more weeks, kids. Three. More. Weeks.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org