Basketball kicks off in Lawrence tonight as the Jayhawks square off against in state Pitt State in one of two annual exhibition contests prior to the start of non conference play. For Kansas the season tips one year after winning a seventh consecutive Big 12 Conference Championship, but this year might have more questions surrounding the Jayhawks than any in recent memory.
It's been a great run for Bill Self and Kansas. Everytime things seem to be on a downward swing, the Jayhawks find a way to continue their run. There was the Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins led team of 2008-2009 that surprised quite a few and won the conference following a National Title and a mass exodus in Lawrence. Then along came the Morris twins who had what amounted to one of the most dramatic overall improvements in over the course of a three year career as the duo went from lost at times to NBA lottery picks and three time conference champions.
Whenever you are ready to count out the Jayhawks, Bill Self seems to pull another rabbit out of the hat and Kansas contends. This year however, might be the biggest test. Kansas lost a total of six players that had contributed significant minutes including four of five starters from an Elite Eight team a year ago. Gone are the Morris twins who provided a scoring punch, gone are Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed who had provided senior stability. It's a new show and with that the Jayhawks will find themselves trying to answer quite a few questions early this season.
Who Shoulders The Scoring Load For Kansas?
Yes the Jayhawks return Thomas Robinson, Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor. But none of them have been relied upon as a key scoring threat during their career. Robinson has a fairly limited sample in the grand scheme of things, Taylor and Johnson are explosive but spent more time creating for the Morris twins instead of scoring themselves.
Where does the offense come from? Without the addition of any major known commodities in the recruiting class it's a big question for Bill Self. Can Robinson shoulder the load? Will Taylor take a more prominent offensive role? Can Johnson step into the spotlight? Or does someone else altogether provide an unexpected punch? Travis Releford? Jeff Withey?
Where Is The Depth?
Top end talent isn't the problem. Johnson and Taylor will create a dynamic backcourt. Robinson, Releford and Withey were all highly rated recruits and should round out the front line. After that, Kansas is going to rely a bit on walk ons and other unknown commodities.
Can Naadir Tharpe provide a boost at the point as a true freshman? Can Justin Wesley fill the role that Christian Moody did during the early Self years? How does Connor Teahan fit into the picture? Can newomers Merv Lindsey or Kevin Young make an immediate impact? Self has had the fortunate problem of dealing with too many talented players and trying to juggle playing time for several seasons now. This year he won't have that luxury and a shorter bench will be an issue he is forced to deal with.
How Does The New Blood Fit In?
For quite some time Bill Self has also had the good fortune of keeping some continuity in terms of his teams leadership and depth. The Kansans from a year ago, combined with the Morris twins provided some stability. Before that it was Aldrich and Collins bridging the gap. Every time Kansas has had those top end leaders blend with the new blood in the program. Does that continue?
The reason it is even coming into question is that the new blood this year is entering the program with noticeably lower expectations. Bill Self hasn't been knocking it out of the park lately in terms of recruiting and with early departures it could start to catch up with Kansas.
All in all the good news for Kansas is that the league as a whole is looking at a down year. Kansas has been picked to win the league largely due to what they have returning and what appears to be a solid starting five. Where the questions begin and where the early season focus will shift, is toward the players that will come off the bench. How quickly and how well those players fit into the system and contribute will go a long way toward determining the success of Kansas in 2011-2012.