Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.
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Last Season: 32-7, 16-2 Big 12 (1st); Lost to Kentucky in the National Title game
Head Coach: Bill Self
Key Losses: Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Connor Teahan
Newcomers: Ben McLemore, Perry Ellis, Rio Adams, Andrew White, Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, Zach Peters
– G: Elijah Johnson, Sr.
– G: Ben McLemore, Fr.
– F: Travis Releford, Sr.
– F: Perry Ellis, Fr.
– C: Jeff Withey, Sr.
– Bench: Naadir Tharpe, So.; Kevin Young, Sr.; Justin Wesley, Jr.; Rio Adams, Fr.; Andrew White, Fr.; Jamari Traylor, Fr.
Outlook: Bill Self always has teams that can defend. According to Kenpom’s database, in his nine seasons at Kansas, the Jayhawks have never been worse than 18th when it comes to defensive efficiency. That was in 2005. They haven’t been out of the top ten since then, finishing as the most efficient defensive teams in 2007 and 2008, the year they won the national title.
This season, defense isn’t simply going to be one aspect of the game for Kansas; it’s going to be their lifeline. The Jayhawks weren’t exactly on offensive juggernaut last season, and that team was a two-man show with Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor accounting for more than 57% of the possessions when they were on the floor. With both Robinson and Taylor gone, the Jayhawks are going to have to answer some questions on that end of the floor.
But before I jump ahead, the defense. It starts with Jeff Withey, who was the nation’s most dominant shot blocker last season. He’s a legitimate seven-footer with a wingspan that’s long for his height and a terrific sense of timing and avoiding drawing fouls. He’s the human eraser around the rim, which is great news for Bill Self’s perimeter players. There’s nothing more comforting for a guard pressuring defensively than knowing that, if he gets beat, his man won’t be scoring at the rim. And with a trio of big, athletic guards — Elijah Johnson, Ben McLemore and Travis Releford go 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5, 6-f00t-5 — on the floor to provide that defensive pressure, scoring on Kansas is going to be a nightmare.
That’s good news for the Jayhawks, as they may end up having some issues on the offensive end of the floor. Withey, for all of his defensive ability, is not really a threat on the offensive end of the floor. He’s a great offensive rebounder and he can finish off a dump-down or an alley-oop, but that’s about it. You’re not going to throw the ball to him in the post and clear out. Freshman Perry Ellis may eventually be that guy, but that could take some time. Ellis may not even start at the beginning of the season, as the Jayhawks have a plethora of big bodies at their disposal — Kevin Young, Justin Wesley, Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, Zach Peters. Ellis is easily the most talented of the bunch.
On the perimeter, the ball is likely going to start out in Elijah Johnson’s hands. Johnson has been enigmatic throughout his career, even more so than Tyshawn Taylor was in his first two seasons, but he had a very strong finish to the 2012 NCAA tournament. He averaged 15.1 points over the final eight games and was instrumental in getting the Jayhawks to the title game. He’ll be taking over more of a leadership role this season while sliding over to play the point guard spot. It will be an adjustment, but one that many expected Johnson to thrive in this season.
Travis Releford has always been a reliable role player, providing veteran leadership and a defensive presence. It would be nice if he could up that three point percentage this season, but what he brings this group doesn’t necessarily show up in the box score. Keep an eye on Naadir Tharpe as well. Tharpe was a highly-regarded recruit last year that didn’t see a ton of minutes behind Taylor. He’ll spell Johnson.
But the x-factor for this team is going to end up being Ben McLemore. McLemore is 6-foot-5 and, as Self put it, “he can run, he can jump and he can shoot, and that’s a pretty good combination for a wing.” But can he be a primary scoring option? Is he a guy that can go out and get 15 points every night? Is he a guy that can be isolated on the wing and create a shot for himself? Because that’s what this team is missing. As much veteran leadership as there is on the roster, they don’t have a true go-to guy.
McLemore is the player that most believe will fill that role.
Predictions?: It’s not exactly a leap of faith to predict that the Jayhawks will win the Big 12 title. They’ve won eight in a row already. But given the weird makeup of their roster — seniors playing roles, a pair of freshmen being relied on to carry the burden offensively — this might end up being one of Self’s toughest coaching jobs. I think he’ll be able to handle it, especially if Kansas ends up being as good defensively as many expect them to be. They’ll win the Big 12 again and should make a lot of noise in March.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.