Expectations can be a funny thing. Despite heading into this season as a co-favorite along with now fading Texas A&M, the Kansas Jayhawks began this season with a very different outlook than they have the last two seasons. Rather than feeling like an overwhelming favorite with a team so deep that it could probably finish top four with the bench players, Kansas was viewed as thin, unproven and possibly in the midst of a rebuild.
In fact, most of the credit for Kansas being the favorite at the beginning of the season was given to a healthy respect for Bill Self and Allen Fieldhouse. The thinking seemed to be that those two factors would play the biggest role in giving Kansas a shot and maybe an edge in a Big 12 race that was blurry at best to start the year.
Now six games into the season, Kansas sits on top of the league once again and the respect for the talent on the court seems to be as healthy as ever. Now that the Jayhawks can look at the first 1/3 of the conference schedule in the rearview mirror, what have they learned about themselves, the Big 12 race and expectations for the 2012 season?
Bill Self is Bill Self and Allen Fieldhouse is Allen Fieldhouse
One minute you praise the play of this team on the court and the next you have to look at the bench and realize that Bill Self might be the best coach when it comes to turning the page and playing a next man up type of philosophy. After losing six players and four starters from the rotation a year ago, Kansas is right back in the thick of it at 6-0 in the league and that has to be credited to the quality of the program in terms of developing talent.
On another note you have to look at the early season schedule and realize that Allen Fieldhouse does provide one of the elite home court advantages in college basketball. Early this year Kansas has blown out Kansas State and Baylor at home while riding a bit of that homecourt advantage to a comeback win over Iowa State.
Thomas Robinson is an Elite Talent
As the sixth man a year ago, Robinson played second fiddle to the Morris twins. In hindsight you wonder if Bill Self would like to have a mulligan and play Robinson a bit more than he did at times. That said, Robinson turned a corner this year and is playing with a level of confidence that has allowed him to dominate games at times.
The 6'10" junior has improved on his strengths inside and he's added a few wrinkles to his game including the ability to push the ball off the dribble and spot up from outside on occasion. His bread and butter is still underneath the basket where his physical gifts are off the charts, but his overall presence is what has him sitting as the theoretical leader in the clubhouse for player of the year.
Tyshawn Taylor Is Turning A Corner
Is it possible for a team to have the leading candidate for national player of the year while having another player on the team possibly lead for the conference player of the year?
That might be the situation at Kansas right now as Tyshawn Taylor has exploded during conference play. He's playing with a confidence that makes his ability to get to the rim and create look almost effortless at times. Over the last two weeks Taylor has arguably been the best guard in the country. Now it's just a question of how long this trend continues and if we're seeing a true turning of the corner from Taylor.
Jeff Withey and Travis Releford are Key Under the Radar Factors
Releford and Withey have both been a very positive development for Kansas this season especially over the last month. Heading into the year these two were probably the biggest question marks in terms of how high the Kansas ceiling could be and now that we have a decent sample, things are looking good.
Releford has been solid defensively while doing the little things and providing a recent offensive spark. Jeff Withey has surpassed expectations and continues to build on a well rounded game that is providing Kansas a lift on both ends of the court. All in all these two have been huge for the Jayhawks despite the fact that Robinson and Taylor will continue to command the headlines.
The Journey is Far From Over
So far Kansas has had one of the more manageable Big 12 schedules which has assisted them in their fast start. The two most difficult games against a ranked K-State team and an undefeated and ranked Baylor were games that Kansas played on their home court.
The other four games included Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Iowa State and a solid Texas team on the road. But in general the toughest part of the schedule for Kansas is still to come. Over the next month Kansas will have to go on the road in Ames, Columbia, Waco and Manhattan. Those are four games that could all end up as losses and completely change the complexion and expectations surrounding this season.
On the one hand the fast start has been a positive. On the other hand that means there is still a lot of work to do and with 12 games remaining a whole lot can change. Kansas has done very well in getting the ball rolling this season, now comes the challenge of remaining top dog with a target on your back.