"Enjoy the ride"

When it comes to his team, win or lose Head Coach Bill Self can typically be counted on for candor. So when he stands up in front of 16,000 fans and advises them to "enjoy the ride" with the current squad, as he did Friday night, all of Jayhawk Nation would do well to listen.

When it comes to his team, fans can usually count on Bill Self to tell it like it is.

In the aftermath of a game, if the Kansas Jayhawks looked like a well-oiled machine in victory, their head honcho will say so. Likewise, if they struggled in victory or defeat, Self is just as honest and upfront.

That candor is one of the things that makes Self somewhat unique among the coaching fraternity. So when he stands up in front of 16,000 fans and advises them to "enjoy the ride" with the 2011-2012 Jayhawks - as he did Friday night during 'Late Night in the Phog' - those fans would do well to listen.

It's certainly not hard to understand why. Of all the teams he's coached at Kansas since he was hired in 2003, perhaps none has had more question marks hanging over its head than this one.

With the departures of Mario Little, Brady Morningstar, Marcus and Markieff Morris - both of whom opted to forego their senior seasons and were selected in the lottery of the 2011 NBA Draft - Tyrel Reed and Josh Selby, the overwhelming majority of the production from last season's Elite Eight squad is gone. The number of returning players who averaged more than 20 minutes per game in 2010-2011 can be counted not on one hand, but on one finger.

The list begins and ends with senior point guard Tyshawn Taylor.

There is talent, to be sure. Taylor and junior power forward Thomas Robinson have the ability to rank among the very best at their respective positions in the country, and breakout years are expected from juniors Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey.

The problem is that there simply isn't as much of it as in years past - with just 10 scholarship players on the squad - and even less experience. Of the returners, nobody comes close to Taylor's 27.1 minutes per game – Robinson holds the award for second place with 14.6. And three of those 10 scholarship players are newcomers donning the Crimson and Blue for the first time.

From Self's perspective, the most prominent issue with this team will be scoring. With the six aforementioned departures, the Jayhawks lost approximately 75-percent of their scoring from a year ago.

"I think scoring will be the biggest challenge," Self said. "And then defensively we'll have to be great, not good. Last year we weren't great. We were good defensively, but we were really good offensively. This year we probably need to flip it a little bit."

As a result, Self's offensive philosophy won't undergo a complete overhaul, but it will see a few tweaks - in regards to shot distribution, for example.

Under Self the Jayhawks have been unique in their balance; a characteristic perhaps best embodied by the 2008 championship squad and the 2010-2011 Jayhawks. When one star faltered temporarily, another stepped up to fill the void and the team didn't miss a beat.

That situation doesn't exist this year, Self explained, which means they'll now be coaching in the same fashion as virtually every coach in America, but funneling the offense through a small handful of players. In the case of Kansas, that handful will likely consist of Johnson and Taylor on the perimeter, and Robinson in the post.

It may also have an effect on the team's pace of play.

"We may play a little bit faster in certain situations, and then play a lot slower in certain situations to make sure we have a chance to take advantage of Tyshawn touching the paint," Self explained. "You guys saw tonight, that dude can get to the paint. Why would we let somebody shoot it before he has a chance to get to the paint?"

One thing that won't change, however, will be the defensive philosophy. Known for the outstanding defensive play of his teams, Self said the lack of depth may force them to go to a zone defense more frequently, but for the most part the same principles he has been teaching since he arrived on Mount Oread will remain true.

The team will simply need to be better conditioned, tougher, harder and smarter than their opponents on the defensive end.

"I mean we still believe defensively we have to give up one or less shots ever possession," Self said. "And how we go about getting there will be tweaked, but it won't be a philosophical change. We will not change that at all."

If it sounds like a lot to process to a fan, imagine what it must be like for the coaches and players, to try and fit the pieces at their disposal into its own unique - but still successful - picture.

So yes, the path to an eighth consecutive Big 12 Championship may be shrouded in a bit of mystery at the moment. But rather than wilt at the prospect of finding that path, Self is instead excited by the challenge it represents.

"I think it's going to be a fun team to coach," he said, with a smile. "I think it's going to be a really fun team to coach."

Buckle up, Jayhawk Nation. With the first exhibition game a little more than two weeks away, the ride is about to begin.

It would be a shame not to enjoy it.

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