2010 Jayhawks feature athletes aplenty

For many reasons – the most obvious of which is, of course, the National Championship trophy resting safely within the Booth Family Hall of Athletics – the 2007-2008 Kansas Jayhawks hold a special place in the hearts of Jayhawk Nation.

Every Kansas team since has been judged by the standard of that group; a reflection of the high expectations placed on the basketball program year in and year out.

Head Coach Bill Self not only understands these expectations – he embraces them. And at Tuesday's annual pre-season Media Day press conference, he said this year's squad compares favorably to the 2008 National Champs in at least one regard.

"We're more athletic than what we have been the last couple of years, for sure," Self noted in his opening statement. "It will be hard to surpass that 2007-2008 team athletically, but I think this team is the closest thing we've had to doing so since we've been here. I'm excited about it, and I think it should be a fun year."

That statement is music to the ears of Kansas fans, who are eager to get a glimpse of this iteration of their beloved basketball program minus superstars Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry, all of whom are now in the NBA.

Certainly the perception seems to be that this team, while still talented, will have a tough time replacing the trio's production. Last week, it was revealed that the league's head coaches had selected in-state rival Kansas State to win the Big 12 championship.

That the Jayhawks were picked second doesn't bother Self at all. In his mind, Kansas State deserved the pre-season honor and, as always, the final result will be determined on the court.

After all, Self noted, teams typically don't improve immediately after losing two lottery picks (Aldrich and Henry) and the winningest player in the history of the school (Collins).

"Our goal will be to win every game, but that will be very difficult to do," he explained. "I do think this team can be as good as last year's team. The league will be very good again, and we just have to make sure and take care of our business and not worry about everybody else."

Thanks to the improved athleticism, fans can expect the 2010-2011 Jayhawks to play to different strengths on the court than in year's past. Without Aldrich's intimidating presence in the middle defensively, for example, they'll be forced to adapt. This means defending ball screens different, applying more full-court pressure and, in general, just playing faster.

Additionally, Self touched on several players who have used the off-season to make big strides, including Thomas Robinson, Travis Releford, Markieff Morris and Mario Little.

A great deal is expected of Releford by the fanbase. After garnering much attention locally as a highly-touted high school prospect during his prep days at Roeland Park (KS) Bishop Miege High School, Releford played sparingly during his freshman season before taking a redshirt last year.

It was time he put to good use, Self said, and he sees great potential in the sophomore small forward.

"I don't know if I see him scoring a lot, but I see him playing a lot," he said, of Releford. "Hopefully he can be a lockdown-type defender and be a guy that averages close to 10 points a game. I think that would be a bonus for us and I think he's capable of doing that."

Of course, it all gets started with Friday night with "Late Night in the Phog." Not only is it a big event for the fans and the team as they officially open the season, but the annual festivities remain one of the most potent recruiting weapons in Kansas' arsenal.

The 2010 Late Night appears to be bigger than ever in that regard, with more than a dozen of the top recruits in the nation scheduled to attend.

"It's big," Self said, of Late Night. "It's probably the biggest one we've had. It's an important weekend for us."

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