Tyshawn Taylor

CBT Monthly Awards: Duke is Team of the Month, UCLA disappoints

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With November in the books, we have a pretty good sample size to make snap judgments about what we’ve seen. The College Basketball Talk staff got together to share their thoughts on the first month of the college hoops season.

Enjoy.

 

Team of the Month:

David Harten: Duke – You can’t argue with a team that’s beaten THREE top-5 teams in a row. Just can’t. Doesn’t matter if it’s obvious.

Rob Dauster: Duke – There really is no argument here. They’ve beaten three top five teams, plus Minnesota and VCU.

Dan Martin: Duke – As everyone else has said, the Blue Devils came into the month with some doubters, and you can bet most of those have now become believers. Three wins over Top-5 wins are impressive on an NCAA Tournament resume, but to do it in the first month is unmatched.

Raphielle Johnson: Duke – I still think Indiana’s the best team currently but it’s the Blue Devils who have the best resume. They win as a result of that.

Eric Angevine: Indiana – Four years ago, the notion of Indiana being a #1 team again was absurd. Even the preseason No. 1 ranking felt a bit premature this season. But Tom Crean and his team — not just Cody Zeller, but the team — have taken all of the pressure on, played some tough games and made it through November unscathed.

 

Player of the Month:

Terrence Payne: Mason Plumlee, Duke – Plumlee No. 2 showed he can be the headlining act for a national contender. Whether it be he’s aggression on the boards or his improvement from the free throw line, Plumlee has his name in player of the year contention

Rob Dauster: Mason Plumlee, Duke – . He finally went from prospect to player. The most dominant big man in the country is the early player of the year favorite after averaging 20 and 11 through the first month.

Raphielle Johnson: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh – Mason Plumlee will get a lot of love in this category and rightfully so, but McCollum deserves some as well. Nation’s leading scorer and also became the all-time leading scorer in Patriot League history last month.

Dan Martin: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh – For variety’s sake, if it’s not Mason Plumlee, take a look at what McCollum has done: 26.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game. He is showing that he made the right choice in coming back to school and has Lehigh off to a 5-2 start.

David Harten: Jeff Withey, Kansas – The Jayhawks’ 7-footer is averaging 14.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and leading the nation at 6.2 blocks per game in 28.8 minutes per. Not to mention he’s rattled off the second triple-double in program history in a win over San Jose State with 16 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks.

Eric Angevine: Jack Cooley, Notre Dame – Jeff Withey certainly had a stellar month, but for night-in, night-out production, I’m going with Cooley. The Irish always thrive with a spiky-headed brawler in the paint, and Cooley is that guy. One thing I really, really like about Cooley is that he hits his free throws, which is crucial for someone who lives around the basket.

Troy Machir: Jack Taylor, Grinnell College – Think about this: It took Mason Plumlee seven games to score as many points as Jack Taylor scored in one game. Taylor scored 138 points in ONE GAME? This isn’t even a discussion. November belonged to Jack Taylor.

 

Freshman of the Month:

Eric Angevine: Ben McLemore, Kansas – He’s the Jayhawks’ second leading scorer (13.8 ppg), and he may overtake Jeff Withey (14.2) in that department sooner rather than later. He’s also averaging 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and a steal and a block per game. That’s heady stuff for a freshman in Bill Self’s system.

Troy Machir: Ben McLemore, Kansas – Nothing about this kid’s play has been “freshman-like”. Through a month of play, there aren’t many Big-XII players, freshman or not, who are playing better than him.

Terrence Payne: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State – Ask to take a big role with injuries, hasn’t disappointed for the Cowboys.

Rob Dauster: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State – He’s got Oklahoma State ranked despite the fact the lost two players to season ending injuries. Impressive.

Raphielle Johnson: Jahii Carson, Arizona State – Herb Sendek said the Sun Devils would play faster and they have, with Carson being the biggest reason why they’ve been successful. He’ll only get better as the season wears on too.

David Harten: Anthony Bennett, UNLV – He’s averaged 19.5 points and 7.8 rebounds and anchored the front line for the Runnin’ Rebels in the early part of the season. His rise to prominence in college basketball took less time than his announcement ceremony.

Dan Martin: Isaiah Austin, Baylor – Austin is a versatile forward who, even in his first game of the season, showed he can play. He had 22 points in 17 minutes against Lehigh before spraining his ankle and is averaging 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.

 

Game of the Month:

Troy Machir: Indiana 82, Georgetown 72 OT – The best team in the country was pushed to the brink by a then un-ranked team with no seniors on the roster. The ebbs and flows of the game is what made it so special. The final score doesn’t properly reflect the quality of basketball we were treated too.

Eric Angevine: Duke 76, Louisville 71 – The Indiana-Georgetown OT tilt was also on my radar, but Duke vs. Louisville had too many story lines and too much drama to ignore. Imagine how much better it would have been if Dieng had been there to counter Plumlee. Nonetheless, it was the biggest chance at a statement game in the top five that we’ve seen so far, and Duke made the statement, which was”Yeah, we’re still Duke.”

David Harten: New Mexico 86, Davidson 81 – The Lobos survived 86-81 after Wildcats went up early on a bevy of threes — up 25-11 at one point and 45-31 at half — before Tony Snell, who went for 25, went ham and brought them back late in the second half and The Pit was rocking super hard for Marathon Madness.

 

Most Surprising Team:

David Harten: Colorado – Look at the Buffs! A 6-0 start with wins over Baylor and Murray State. Andre Roberson is clocking 10.8 points and 11 rebounds per and they’ve gotten production from Askia Booker (team leader at 16.8 ppg, 3.0 apg), Spencer Dinwiddie (14.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Josh Scott (14.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg).

Raphielle Johnson: SMU – Honestly I thought this team would be on the receiving end of beatings on a regular basis, Larry Brown or not. They’re 7-1, and regardless of what some may say of the opposition that’s a major improvement from last season.

Eric Angevine: Oklahoma State – While we were all waiting around to see if Baylor, West Virginia or some other team was going to rise up and challenge Kansas in the Big 12, it turned out that the Smart money was on the Cowboys.

Rob Dauster: Michigan – We knew the Wolverines were going to be good, but did anyone think they could put together an argument for being the best team in the country? For my money, Trey Burke has been the best point guard in the country.

Dan Martin: Illinois – The Illini were chosen to finish ninth in the Big Ten in the preseason media poll, but new head coach John Groce has his team 8-0 and ranked 22nd in the country. Their first real test, though, comes Dec. 8 against Gonzaga.

 

Least Surprising Team:

Eric Angevine: UCLA – Why did we expect them to be any different? For the past few years, this once-proud program has been on the rocks due to an apparent lack of discipline and a failure to retain top players. Nothing has changed, yet, but I’d be surprised if we see the same head coach in Bruin Blue next season.

Raphielle Johnson: UCLA – Talented but when you’re mixing skilled rookies with vets and no proven leader, things can get interesting. 5-2 isn’t a bad record, but I’m not buying this group as a bonafide contender right now.

Terrence Payne: UCLA – Bruins had potential through the roof entering the season. Without Shabazz Muhammad for the majority of the summer and fall and relying on a core of freshmen, it’s not surprising the Bruins and Ben Howland are off to a rocky start.

David Harten: UCLA – There was so little margin for error that you figured one thing going wrong would deflate the whole thing. Then the nail-biter over James Madison, the UC-Irvine loss and Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb left the team. That margin has been reached.

Dan Martin: Kansas – It never seems to matter what pieces Bill Self has in Kansas. They still end up competing. Even after losing Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor to the pros, Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore lead the Jayhawk attack in 2012-13.

Troy Machir: Indiana – They were the best team in the country before the season began, and after the month, nothing has changed. They are still the best team in the country. I’m not surprised at all.

 

Bandwagon you are jumping on:

Dan Martin: Michigan – The Wolverines won the NIT Tip Off in New York over a solid Pittsburgh team and pesky Kansas State squad, then beat No. 18 NC State. I really like Michigan’s trio of Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Glenn Robinson III. Hardaway, Jr.’s transformation into a full player is key for coach John Beilein’s team.

Terrence Payne: Michigan – Very talented team, led by a stellar backcourt of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Burke is making a strong case to be the best floor general in the county, while Hardaway showing huge confidence in his game.

Rob Dauster: Georgetown – That zone is going to be a nightmare for everyone, and Markel Starks gives them a veteran back court leader.

Raphielle Johnson: Arizona – Wildcats go ten deep without much of a drop off (if any). Sean Miller’s got his best team since arriving in the Old Pueblo, and that includes the Elite 8 team in his second season.

Troy Machir: Cincinnati – Sean Kilpatrick has got to be somewhere near the top of the Wooden Award watch list after a month of play. Bearcats lead the country in rebounding and are seventh in points per game. They’ve also played much better non-conference opposition than in years past.

David Harten: Minnesota – I expected the Golden Gophers to be good, but they’ve been solid without much out of Trevor Mbakwe, who is making his way back from a torn ACL. Besides a loss to (my team of the month) Duke, they’ve rattled off wins over Memphis, Stanford and Florida State and earned a Top 25 ranking.

 

Bandwagon you are jumping off:

Raphielle Johnson: Drexel – Bruiser Flint’s team is tough but not particularly deep. And after losing Chris Fouch for the season it’s difficult to see the Dragons winning the CAA.

Eric Angevine: North Carolina – I know, I just bought them cheap for Cyber Monday, but it wouldn’t be the first time I pulled something disappointing out of the discount bin (I’m looking at you, DVD of Neverending Story 3). Rob’s right – there’s no distributor in Chapel Hill, and you can’t run the system without one.

Rob Dauster: St. Mary’s – Matthew Dellavedova is a stud, but he doesn’t have enough support around him.

David Harten: Baylor – Tons of talent, not a ton of discipline. A loss to Colorado wasn’t too bad, but the loss to College of Charleston was. They could turn it around, but they’ll have to do it in games against Kentucky, Northwestern and BYU.

Dan Martin: Memphis – Many thought this was going to be “The Season” for Memphis, but perhaps they’ll need to iron out some more wrinkles before everything comes together in Tennessee. A disappointing Battle 4 Atlantis now has the Tigers at 4-2 and averaging 14 turnovers per game.

Terrence Payne: Memphis – Tigers were suppose to be a factor this season, hasn’t shown it thus far. Josh Pastner still trying to get it all together, but in the mean time can sell the fans on a highly-touted recruiting class coming in.

 

Stat of the Month:

Raphielle Johnson: Mason Plumlee is now Duke’s all-time leader in dunks with 149. Robert Brickey was the previous record holder with 147.

Terrence Payne: Mason Plumlee is just under 80 percent from the free throw line to start the year. Compare that to 53 percent last year, 44 percent as a sophomore, and 54 percent as a freshman.

David Harten: Siena’s O.D. Anosike averaging almost as many rebounds as points. The 6-8 senior lead the nation in the stat at 12.5 per game last season, but he’s taken it to new heights this year. The Saints’ big man is averaging 14.4 points and 14.1 rebounds through five games.

Eric Angevine: Cal State Fullerton is shooting the lights out. 54.4% from inside the arc, 79.6% from the stripe, and a stunning 50% from deep. If the Titans manage to locate some defense over the next few weeks, they could actually be dangerous.

Dan Martin: Larry Drew II is averaging 8.1 assists and just 1.3 turnovers per game this season for UCLA. With so many bashing coach Ben Howland for announcing Drew II as his point guard, the former UNC guard is producing.

 

Final Four Picks after one month:

Eric Angevine: Indiana, Duke, Louisville, Florida
Rob Dauster: Indiana, Duke, Kansas, Missouri
David Harten: Indiana, Duke, Louisville, Michigan
Raphielle Johnson: Indiana, Duke, Louisville, Gonzaga
Troy Machir: Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Gonzaga
Dan Martin: Indiana, Duke, Kansas, Michigan
Terrence Payne Indiana, Duke, Michigan, Gonzaga

Troy Machir is the Managing Editor of Ballin’ is a Habit and can be found on Twitter at @TroyMachir

Bill Self says Kansas was ‘just awful’ in aspects of win over Oregon State

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Despite losing key starters Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson to the pros, coach Bill Self has his Kansas Jayhawks back and looking like a team ready to make a run back to the Final Four.

Friday night’s 84-78 win over Oregon State in Kansas City might not have been the most dominating victory of the Kansas’ young season, but there’s no doubt that Self has a possible contender on his hands, come March.

But you’d never know it if you ask him.

“From an execution standpoint it was all just awful,” he said after the game. “We have a long ways to go, we need to improve. We got the win, I’m thankful for that but I don’t think anyone is leaving here feeling giddy about our performance here tonight.”

Redshirt freshman Ben McLemore led the way for Kansas with 21 points, along with 20 from senior Travis Releford and 17 from center Jeff Withey.

Withey, coming into the game leading the nation in blocks with over six per game, swatted (just?) three Friday night.

“They set a bunch of ball screens with Jeff (Withey’s) man. Jeff actually does a decent job it’s our guards that just can’t get over the screens,” Self explained. “We are playing against quickness and that’s tough for our guards. That’s disappointing and we need to start playing zone or do something different.”

Kansas has a week of rest and time for Self to work out some kinks before the Jayhawks return to the floor Dec. 8 against Colorado.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Bill Self: ‘This will all be a pretty good teaching tool for us.’

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ATLANTA – With 5:07 left on the clock against Michigan State on Tuesday, Kansas was firmly control of the opening game of the Champions Classic.

Travis Releford and Jeff Withey combined to score six straight points as the Jayhawks opened up a 59-54 lead, and with the momentum fully in their favor, Bill Self’s club looked like they were on the verge of handing Sparty their second loss in five days to kick off the season.

Kansas had the ball eight times in the final 5:07. One possession ended in a pair of Elijah Johnson free throws. Another ended with an and-one layup in transition by Ben McLemore off of a (foul-assisted) Keith Appling turnover. The other six possessions, which resulted in four missed jumpers and two turnovers, were just as ugly aesthetically as they were in the box score. In the end, the Jayhawks lost, 67-64.

No one wanted the ball in crunch time for Kansas. No one was ready, willing, or capable of demanding the ball and saying, ‘Clear out, I got this’. And that, more than anything, is where Kansas truly misses Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson.

“The thing about playing a game this early is somebody is going to lose,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said after the game. “If you look at it, I thought we were pretty good for about 35 minutes. I thought we played probably about as I good as I thought we were going to play.”

“But games are decided in the last five, and they were much better in the last five.”

The conundrum for Kansas lies in their roster makeup. They are one of the more experienced teams in the country. Three seniors start, two of whom are in their fifth-years. Another fifth-year senior comes off the bench. With the exception of Perry Ellis, every member of the Kansas rotation was part of the program last season when they made the national title game.

The problem is that all of those veterans are role players. Jeff Withey is arguably the most intimidating defensive force in the country, but he’s still not much of a threat on the offensive end of the role. Johnson is a nice complimentary scorer, nut he’s yet to prove he can handle being the focal point offensively. Releford is a glue guy, a defender that will hit open threes, and not too much more.

The stars?

The supreme talents?

The potential first round draft picks?

They’re all freshmen.

“Our freshmen are going to be good, but they’re pretty green and naive,” Self said. “They’re not your typical heralded freshmen that have had a lot of exposure. They’ve been pretty sheltered as far as experiences.”

McLemore is the guy expected to be the star for this group, but he still has to learn about to play that role. He may have been a top 25 recruit, but he wasn’t even the go-to guy when he played at high level events in high school. In AAU ball, he deferred to Bradley Beal, last year’s No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft. There are things that McLemore, who played just his second collegiate game after redshirting last season, has to learn to be able to do to thrive in that role.

“Plugging himself in where he knows where his shots are coming from, putting himself in the game where he’s more of an impact guy,” Self said of what McLemore needs to develop. “He’s a pretty efficient player, but seven shots for him is not enough. He needs to take more shots. He’s just so talented and he’s going to learn. It’s just all new to him. He’ll get. It’s going to take a while, but he’s going to get it.”

Ellis is a finesse player at this point in his career, and while nothing has changed about his ability to put up points, finesse power forwards aren’t exactly the ideal. Traylor showed off some unbelievable athleticism, with a ridiculous put-back dunk and one of the best fast-break blocks you’ll ever see, but right now he has Thomas Robinson’s motor without his skill set.

Those guys will learn and they’ll develop and they’ll get better as the season goes along, but throwing them into the fire in a nail-biter against a Big Ten contender on national television in the Georgia Dome isn’t exactly bringing them along slowly.

Give them time.

“I thought this was a good game for us,” Self said. “I’m not leaving out of here discouraged at all. I’m not happy we lost because you’re up in that situation, you’ve gotta close, and we didn’t close. But there were some good things that happened.”

“I think this will all be a pretty good teaching tool for us.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Position Rankings: The 20 Best Small Forwards

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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.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

The Top 10

1. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: Thomas has been a dangerous scorer for two seasons with the Buckeyes, but both of those seasons came with Jared Sullinger dominating the offense. With Sully off to the NBA, Thomas should slide into the role of OSU’s go-to offensive weapon. The biggest question mark with Thomas? Will he be primarily a perimeter player or post presence this year. Thad Matta doesn’t exactly have a plethora of low-post scorers at his disposal.

2. Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State: Franklin could legitimately be considered one of the nation’s most underrated players. Not only is he the most productive player for a very good Aztec team — he nearly averaged 20 points and 10 boards during conference play a year ago — but his ability to rebound and while being the second-biggest player on the floor for SDSU (he’s 6-foot-5) allows Steve Fisher to go small and create mismatches.

3. Otto Porter, Georgetown: Porter is only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. He’s athletic, he’s 6-foot-9, he can defend literally every position on the floor, and he’s a defensive playmaker to boot. As a freshman, he averaged 9.7 points and 6.8 boards, and he only now is learning how to play on the offensive end of the floor and fit into Georgetown’s system. I saw him hit 12 out of 13 threes at a workout earlier this year. He’s the real deal.

4. Alex Poythress, Kentucky: Poythress is the one of the two guys on this list that can end up making me look foolish for having him so low. He’s an athletic combo-forward who has a skill-set that seems like it was designed to play for John Calipari, and he’s changed his body since he’s been on campus to become even more powerful. I’m concerned about how he fits in alongside UK’s twin towers, but he’s still a lottery pick waiting to happen.

5. Solomon Hill, Arizona: Hill is one of the most important players for Arizona. Not only is he going to need to provide veteran leadership for a front line that consists of three freshmen and a sophomore, but his ability to be a playmaker at the small forward spot should help to alleviate the pressure put on Mark Lyons.

6. Ben McLemore, Kansas: McLemore has yet to play a second of college basketball. He spent last season redshirting and wasn’t even allowed to practice with the team until the second semester. But, as Bill Self said, “he can run, he can jump and he can shoot”, and given the rave reviews he’s received from offseason workouts, it’s not out of this world to expect him to fill the go-to scorer void left by Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.

7. Le’Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State: Along with Poythress, Nash is the other guy that could end up looking silly ranked this low. He’s got all the physical tools that you want out of a small forward, and his basketball skills aren’t all that far behind. It’s the mental aspect that Nash needs to get a hold of. He was wildly inconsistent last year, struggled in a leadership role and seemed apathetic at times. With Marcus Smart joining him to help take on some of that responsibility, could Nash end up thriving this year?

8. Adonis Thomas, Memphis: Thomas will be one of the more interesting players to keep an eye on this season. He’s a big-time athlete that excels as a rebounder and a defender, and he’s apparently developed a more refined perimeter game and a deadly jump shot. The Tigers have the talent on their roster, but what they need is someone to become a star. Thomas should be that guy.

9. Branden Dawson, Michigan State: Dawson is some-kind of super-human, as all reports out of East Lansing say that not only is he fully recovered just eight months after having ACL surgery, he may end up being stronger than ever by the time the season starts. That’s terrific news for Tom Izzo, as Dawson — a junkyard dog that rebounds and defends as well as anyone at his position — is the perfect player for his system.

10. Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: Blackshear spent much of last season dealing with a banged up shoulder, but when he finally got healthy, he was a weapon for Rick Pitino’s team. Depending on how the team uses Luke Hancock (who is banged up as well), Blackshear may end up being more of a shooting guard, but his value doesn’t change: he’s a big-time perimeter scorer and shooter that isn’t as out of control as Russ Smith.

The Next 10

11. Reggie Bullock (North Carolina)
12. James Ennis (Long Beach State)
13. Rodney Williams (Minnesota)
14. LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State)
15. Cleveland Melvin (DePaul)
16. Roy Devyn Marble (Iowa)
17. Sam Dekker (Wisconsin)
18. Ryan Broekhoff (Valparaiso)
19. Torrey Craig (USC Upstate)
20. Damion Lee (Drexel)

The Best of the Rest: Tommy Brenton (Stony Brook), Jabari Brown (Missouri), Ryan Evans (Wisconsin), CJ Fair (Syracuse), Grant Gibbs (Creighton), Treveon Graham (VCU), PJ Hairston (North Carolina), Luke Hancock (Louisville), Kareem Jamar (Montana), Bryce Jones (UNLV), Roosevelt Jones (Butler), Shelden McClellan (Texas), Lamar Patterson (Pitt), Glenn Robinson III (Michigan), Will Sheehey (Indiana), Tony Snell (New Mexico), Isaiah Sykes (UCF), Greg Whittington (Georgetown), Scott Wood (North Carolina State), Will Yeguete (Florida)

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Kansas’ blowout exhibition win punctuated by big Ben McLemore dunk [Video]

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Behind 15 points from freshman Perry Ellis, Kansas took care of business Tuesday night with an 88-54 exhibition win over Emporia State at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.

With a nearly even minutes distribution, 12 of the 14 players who saw the floor scored points, including strong outings from freshmen Ben McLemore, who had 11 points, and Andrew White III, who added 10.

“We may have set the NCAA record for substitutions,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after the game. “We were trying to make it difficult on our radio team.

“It was good to see those young kids play well. We saw how athletic Ben [McLemore] and Jamari [Traylor] are. There were some good things that happened tonight.”

The Jayhawks were chosen in the Big 12 Coaches’ Poll to finish first in the conference this season, despite having lost key pieces from last year, Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson.

With Missouri moving to the SEC, one key threat to a ninth straight Big 12 championship is gone, but the lineup will be looking to young players like McLemore and Ellis for production.

Check out McLemore’s big dunk below:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBc_3Zz-C6w]

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Top 25 Countdown: No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks

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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.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

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

Projected Lineup:

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.