Jayhawks poised for another Final Four run

Everybody seemed to be happy on the Kansas bench last

season.

Bill Self was certainly pleased with the way his team ran

roughshod to an eighth straight Big 12 title. All his players were

content, too, because they understood their roles, and that seven

or eight of them were going to carry the load on a night-by-night

basis.

There could be quite a bit more discontent this season, at least

early on, and Self believes that’s just as good as the positive

vibes that enveloped the program last year.

The reason? There are about a dozen guys who could be vying for

playing time.

”This year will be a little different,” Self conceded just a

few days into preseason practice. ”We’ll have some guys

disappointed this year because they’re pretty good.”

Pretty young, too.

All-American Thomas Robinson left a year early for the NBA, and

veteran guards Tyshawn Taylor and Connor Teahan have graduated.

Stepping into their place will be nine freshmen, if you count

walk-ons, several of whom will be counted on to continue Kansas’

unparalleled success.

The No. 7 Jayhawks are coming off a loss to Kentucky in the

national championship game.

There’s five-star prospect Perry Ellis, one of the most highly

sought recruits in Kansas high school history. Landen Lucas and

Zach Peters are wide bodies inside, Rio Adams and Andrew Wright a

couple of lanky guards who can score from the outside and get to

the basket.

Then there are Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor.

Meet your new Taylor and Robinson.

The pair was recruited as part of last year’s class, but

McLemore and Traylor were deemed partial qualifiers by the NCAA and

forced to redshirt. They only became eligible to practice the

second semester, but they quickly showed everyone what the

Jayhawks’ had been missing.

McLemore is the quintessential combo guard, able to score

everywhere on the court while also rebounding and playing defense –

in some ways like Taylor, now with the Brooklyn Nets. Traylor is

slightly smaller than Robinson, now with the Sacramento Kings, but

has the same broad shoulders and zest for rebounding that made his

mentor the fifth overall pick in the draft.

”I had a year of practice and I pretty much learned a lot more

than I would have just coming in and playing, so last year was a

blessing in disguise for me,” said Traylor, who’s been mistaken

for T-Rob while walking around on the leafy Kansas campus in

Lawrence.

”It’s definitely competitive, all the freshmen coming in. We

have like nine freshmen, including me and Jamari,” McLemore added.

”Practice is a lot of competitiveness, but we’re also getting

getter as a team and getting ready for the season.”

The focus early in the season will undoubtedly be on the

newcomers, but any success will hinge on the three returning

starters who helped the Jayhawks to the Final Four last season.

Seven-footer Jeff Withey emerged as one of the nation’s top

interior defenders, though he’s still trying to refine his game on

offense. He also won’t have Robinson on the block to take some of

the pressure off him, which means double- and triple-teams will be

constant.

Elijah Johnson will spend most of his time moving from off-guard

to the point, which he played in long stretches during the NCAA

tournament. Johnson’s outside shot is streaky, but his leadership

is not, and he’ll be counted on to be one of the team’s

cornerstones this season.

Travis Releford is the same tough-minded defender he’s been the

past three seasons.

”We have so much experience,” Withey said, pausing. ”We have

the extremes, guys who played in the national championship and guys

that are right out of high school.”

The Jayhawks, the unanimous pick by the Big 12’s coaches to win

the league yet again, benefitted from a preseason trip to Europe to

help blend the newcomers with the veterans. But they’ll still have

to put their preparation into fast forward with a tough early

schedule.

They open the regular season against Southeast Missouri State on

Nov. 9 before facing Michigan State four days later in the

Champions Classic. They’ll also play Washington State and either

Texas A&M or Saint Louis in the CBE Classic in Kansas City,

Mo., before November is over.

Oregon State, Colorado, Ohio State and Temple highlight the rest

of the schedule before Kansas opens the double-round robin of the

Big 12 slate against Iowa State on Jan. 9.

”Having Michigan State the second game of the season, it does

amp it up a little bit,” Self said, before adding: ”I do think we

have a chance to be good by the end.”