Difference A Year Makes

Hard to know exactly what to "predict" for this Kansas basketball team. But judging from history, betting against a Bill Self-coached team would be a mistake.

Kansas has earned the hype that follows it nearly every season. Predicted to be Big 12 champs yet again, according to coaches in its own conference and ranked amongst the nation's best teams yet again with a preseason ranking of 13th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll.

The Jayhawks always seem to find a way and I suspect like the 2009 team did, this squad will get better as the year progresses and at the end, be in a position to once again do some special things.

If you need a reason besides the fact KU has taken 11 of the last 15 Big 12 regular season titles? Well, I'll give you two - Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.

The duo is poised to breakout this season and both appear ready for the challenge. Robinson is a preseason All-American selection and 1st team All-Conference choice and Taylor is expected to finally burgeon into the point guard compliment the coaches know he can be.

"If you go back to ‘09, we had (Sherron) Collins at the point and you had Cole (Aldrich) inside, and anchor and point and that ended up doing pretty good, and we didn't know Cole was good yet," said Self making the comparison to the 2009 squad. "He hadn't had a chance -- he hadn't done what Thomas has done so far."

With just one starter and eight letterwinners returning, Robinson and Taylor will shoulder more of the load from a leadership and a scoring standpoint. One thing is certain, if KU is to succeed it will be because these two performed at a high level.

"I think night in and night out those two should be constants," Self told reporters at Big 12 Media Day. "Now, they may not always play well, but I think they care so much, they've been around long enough, that they'll do whatever they have to do to give us the best chance from a tangible standpoint, in large part because they don't have the personalities around them we've had in the past; that kind of forces their hand in doing so."

Though there will be plenty of talent on the floor, there will also be a lot of skill and potential on the sideline. Three players Self recruited will not suit up.

First, Braedon Anderson was a partial qualifier and was not approved for aid by the Big 12 deeming him ineligible. He is now headed to Fresno State.

Then just prior to Late Night, Self learned he'd be without the services of Jamari Traylor and Ben McLemore. Both players attended three high school and though that always triggers a stern look from the NCAA, the staff believed the duo would qualify. Traylor and McLemore will not be allowed to practice or participate in team activities until the second semester leaving KU a bit shorthanded.

"Our team is totally different," Self analyzed. "We lost six key players off of a pretty good team last year, and recruited fairly well, but didn't get a chance to coach all the guys we recruited due to some NCAA academic situations."

"I don't think really expectations should change that much. We've got good players. We don't have the numbers that we've had in the past."

But there will be a number of players, like Thomas and Tyshawn, who will get a chance to show what they can do.

Travis Releford is primed to bust out, Elijah Johnson is on the cusp of great things, and big man Jeff Withey will now be THE man inside. The seven-footer was singled out by his teammates as the player who will likely surprise.

"I think Jeff is a talented guy," said Self. "He hasn't had a chance to play a lot. And if you go back and look at it, you know, in recent memory, Cole Aldrich was our fourth biggest guy, Thomas Robinson was our fourth big guy, Jeff Withey last year was our fourth big guy, and whether he can emerge to a comparable player as those guys remains to be seen. But I think from a talent standpoint he can."

Withey averaged just a shade over 2 points per game last season and is more of finesse player than a power big man. By process of elimination alone he will play more minutes this season and he could be a critical shot-blocking presence for KU on the defensive end this season.

"There's some really good shot blockers in our league, and Jeff would have to be considered to be one of them," Self continued. "If he plays enough minutes, he'll block a lot of shots."

"I think I'm ready for it," said the junior center Withey. "I've been sitting for two years, so I think now is the time to really step into my element and just play."

Defense always comes first at Kansas and under Self but this year without a plethora of sure-fire pros (yet) this team may find it difficult to score at times. Defense could be what keeps this team near the top of the conference and as one of the best in the country.

"We have to be not good, but great defensively and if we are able to accomplish that then that's going to be something that will give us a chance to have a really good season," Self said.

Brady Morningstar was a rock for Self and was considered a defensive stopper the last couple of seasons. It remains to be seen who will embrace the role but there are a couple of solid candidates.

"I think Tyshawn (Taylor) can be as good as any guard defensively and Travis (Releford) has the potential to be as good a wing guard that we have in our league," Self assessed. "Those two are going to have to play at that level to give us the best chance at winning this season."

"It's always been a strength," said Releford when asked if moving his feet on defense was always a trait of his. "Coming into games I always base everything off of defense. If I can get something going on defense I just let the offense come."

Watching Releford's development will be one of the many interesting stories to keep an eye on this season.

It is an exciting time in Lawrence. KU fans will get to see new stars in new roles and maybe get to see a fresh face emerge once again take KU to yet another Big 12 title. And if KU were to win yet another regular season crown this one might be the most satisfying of the bunch.

"The league will be terrific at the end," said Self about the new-look Big 12 minus Nebraska and Colorado. "Probably as much parity as there has ever been, and playing a round-robin I think will definitely take away from the great won/loss record. I think you'll see the team that wins the league had more losses this year in March probably because the schedules will be so much tougher."

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