LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — 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.”
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