Big 12 Tournament the next step

Thus far, the Kansas Jayhawks have exceeded pre-season expectations through a combination of talent, team chemistry and the strong defense characteristic of Bill Self's team. Despite what they've achieved, however, this team is hungry for more - and the journey toward their next goal begins today at 2 p.m.

If you look back and read what the pundits wrote about Kansas early on it provides interesting perspective.

The league's coaches seemed to believe the Big 12 title would go through Lawrence, but even the Jayhawks' head coach thought that this year would be a bit of a challenge. For Kansas to be competitive in the league Bill Self felt that this KU team would have to be "great" defensively because it very well might struggle to score at times.

En route to a 26-5 record and a staunch 16-2 conference record Kansas HAS been terrific on the defensive end. Once again the Jayhawks led the Big 12 in field goal percentage defense holding opponents to a stingy 38.2 percent. KU has led the Big 12 in that category in five of the last six seasons and again ranks in the top 10 nationally on D.

Most top tier teams in the country feature a true shot blocker to help erase mistakes and allow teams to pressure the ball without a conscience. Kansas has that in 7-0 Jeff Withey. A lot of KU's defensive prowess can be attributed Withey who led the league in blocks with 3.6 per game earning the award for Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12.

"I said before the season that I thought he should lead the league in blocked shots – primarily because he is really tall," said Self. "Certainly he deserves that, I don't know if anybody in our league blocks or alters as many shots as he does.

"Coach Self challenged me to be the top shot-blocker in the league. That was my goal and I am definitely happy to be able to get that award," said Withey. "It's awesome; it's a great honor and I'm really excited that I got it. I was hoping for it."

"For the most part, Jeff has been consistent for the whole year on the defensive end; defensively, he has been a presence the whole year. One reason Thomas has had such a great year is because Jeff guards the other team's best post player. Jeff has been great for us, he has had a terrific year," Self said.

But Self also believes that this Jayhawk team may have actually rebounded and defended better early in the season then they have lately. Defense certainly helped take KU to an eighth straight conference title but the maturation on the offensive end may be why KU has been a step above what everyone expected. Self thought that this team might struggle to score at times but over the course of the season the offense has developed a good flow.

"The biggest thing is that the ball moves, and we trust each other a little bit more. The guys have their roles defined in their minds to the point where they know exactly when to be aggressive and when to not be so aggressive. I think all of the players individually are playing a little bit better, too," said Self.

Coaches are never satisfied though and Self sees room for improvement believing that the best teams in the country are the ones that get stops when they need it most. Self told Phog.net he will emphasize defense a little more and definitely more on rebounding. He will be working at pushing individuals on the defensive end of the floor hoping that they can turn it up a notch in the postseason.

"We could be as good defensively on the perimeter as we have (ever) been, but we just don't play that way all the time. It is a mindset that you get; it is something that you work on and emphasize."

For Kansas, it starts with Travis Releford. He's a player everyone knows can change the game defensively. He did it in the second half against Missouri but hasn't done it quite as often lately. Self believed Travis could be the best defensive wing in the league and ultimately he was left off the defensive team.

"I haven't been defending the way that I was at the beginning of the season," Releford admitted. "I feel like going into the postseason I need to concentrate on it a lot more."

"It's time to get that back and he can get it back in practice or just with his mindset," Self said. "The key to being a good defender – in my opinion – if you're guarding another team's good player is limit his good touches. When you let a player get good touches then the advantage goes to the offense. The best way that I always thought to keep a good player from scoring is maybe not let him shoot it."

"Yes, that's basically what he's doing," Releford answerd when asked if Self has been challenging him defensively. "He knows that I can be that guy on this team and like I said, I haven't been doing that lately, so I need to step it up."

Self mentioned Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor as being stoppers too saying that there is no question they have it in them "to become better individual defenders "

So while KU will be focused on winning another title expect there to be a focus on improving everyday to continue this March march. The Jayhawks may have exceeded everyone else's expectations but the ride doesn't end here. This team isn't ready to rest on their laurels just yet.

"People didn't think that we were going to be number three in the nation by this time of the year," said Withey. "We thought we were this good though. Everybody inside the locker room knew that we had some talent and that we could come out and play. It has been really exciting this year just to see everything develop; it seems like the year has flown by for a lot of us. And we are just excited going into the Big 12 tournament."

"I just think it's another chance for us to get better and to gain some momentum going into the (NCAA) tournament," Releford continued. "I think the postseason conference tournament is very important for us because it shows what we can get better at."


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