Kansas head coach Bill Self doesn’t mince words when talking about what he didn’t like about his team a year ago. The 2014 squad finished 24-10 and was loaded with talent, but lacked its trademark defense and physical play that opponents normally would dread.
Throughout his tenure, the biggest hallmark of Self’s Jayhawk teams has been its defense and despite winning a 10th consecutive conference championship a year ago, it wasn’t close to on par, despite having a premier shot blocker in Joel Embiid, who left for the NBA after his freshman season, which ended on the bench nursing a back injury. In Self’s eyes, as Kansas prepares for it’s 2014-2015 campaign, there’s nowhere to go but up.
“I hope so, because we stunk last year defensively,” Self said. “We didn't put pressure on the ball. We never cut the head off. Teams got comfortable. When I say we stunk; we were probably still the best or second best defensive team in our league, but that's not who we've been for years, and we've been better than that.”
“And so we don't have a shot blocker behind us - if it were not for Joel last year, there's no telling how bad we looked at times defensively, because people got the ball where they wanted to get it, and he covered up mistakes.”
To get back to where Self and his coaches demands the team to be defensively, it’ll take a collective team effort, as while the size won’t be there, there’s no doubt that the talent will be. Kansas returns several key contributors from last year, led by Perry Ellis, who enters his junior campaign a man and one of the premiere players in college basketball.
Fellow forwards Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas and Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson will each challenge each other, as well as be assessed the challenge of adding some of the physicality that was missing a year ago.
There’s guards Wayne Selden, Brannen Greene, Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp, all of which can make things happen in an electric fashion. Many forget that should Kansas have rallied to beat Stanford in the NCAA Tournament, it may have been Frankamp that would have played the role of hero.
Then, there are the welcome additions of dynamic and star-studded freshmen, such as guards Kelly Oubre (6-7, 200), Devonte’ Graham (6-2, 175) and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (6-8, 195).
“This year, we don't have a seven foot tall guy to cover mistakes like that,” Self said. “But I do think we are going to be able to pressure the ball, deny one pass away, and I think you're going to see a pretty good defensive team.”
Then, there’s the addition of bruising forward Cliff Alexander (6-8, 240), a battering ram from Chicago, who will quickly ascend to the top of the pack, a natural born leader who instantly brings the toughness that Self admits the Jayhawks missed a year ago. He also brings back memories of a vital part of KU’s Final Four team from 2012.
“I see some similarities with Cliff and Thomas (Robinson),” Self said. “Cliff is probably a little bigger at the same stage, about the same athletically. Offensively, they’re about the same. There's a lot of similarities in him. Cliff has to get where he goes after every ball, and he did that in high school, so hopefully that will translate to college.”
“But, I think Cliff can be a physical player,” Self said. “I'm not sure that he knows how yet because his idea of being physical would be getting three fouls in the first five minutes. So he's going to have to learn how to guard and move his feet and pick his spots, that kind of stuff.”
While Alexander may be the cornerstone of the class, the rest of it is just as vital, highlighted by Oubre, a player who may very well replace number draft pick Andrew Wiggins in terms of athleticism and most importantly, defense.
“He's probably the guy that it's harder for me to make a true evaluation on right now because the guy is really good,” Self said. He's good enough that he's not going to be at Kansas for a long time.”
“But, we've got to be able to plug him in to take advantage of what he does. He can score the ball but he's so good around the rim, he's so good defensive getting out in passing lanes, he's such a good offensive rebounder. There are a lot of things they can do well that are not your typical two or three guard type things.”
“So, we have to find a way to post him and do some stuff like that that's a little bit different than what we've been doing. But, he's a talented player.”
Graham has already made his presence felt in the locker room and on campus. His personality and ability on the basketball floor have the staff ranting and raving about the possibility that they may have struck gold on a natural leader.
“I think there needs to be, but I'll be honest with you; without seeing him really go up and down a lot, he's going to be a hard guy to keep out of the lineup,” Self said. “He's a little bit older. He's a great leader. He's probably as popular as any student is on campus. I mean, everybody knows him. Everybody likes him. He's got potential to be a great leader, and he's really a good basketball player. So, he'll definitely fight for starting minutes, there's no question about that. And I mean from day one.”
Mykhailuik may be the biggest mystery, but the talk surrounding him makes him arguably the most intriguing newcomer. From Ukraine, his game has been compared to the likes of the great Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs. If the kid they call “Svi” can immolate Ginobili’s game in anyway, especially if it’s the Ginobili from 2004-2008, then Kansas basketball fans are in for a treat beyond their wildest dreams.
“He's a really talented guy,” Self said. “You'll see how impressive he is athletically, with his skill set and all those things. The only knock on him right now is he's young. He should be a high school junior or senior, as opposed to a college freshman. But, he's going to be really good.”
The fact that he’s European may put him at an advantage over anyone freshman who typically enters the Kansas program. Entering the program at just 17 years of age, his experience is vastly different from kids that grow up playing in the United States.
“One thing about him, we haven't been in a practice situation yet but when you stop and think about who has played against the best competition? He may have,” Self said. “And who has played against the strongest men? He may have. So, we talk about the things he may be lacking because of his age. Well, he's the only one that's been out there playing against 28 and 30 year olds consistently. So, it may not be as much of a factor as we might think.”
There’s much to like about the incoming class, as each player brings different skill sets. When you combine it with the talent that’s already on the roster, that adds up to what all could possibly make this year’s Kansas team one of its deepest in the eyes of their coach.
In fact, the usually modest Self didn’t beat around the bush when looking for comparisons for this year’s squad. While it should excite fans, it could also serve as a warning to any team that dreams of finally knocking Kansas off its lofty Big 12 perch.
“I will say that it reminds me a little bit of the 2008 team. You know, on the 2008 team, our best player was Brandon Rush. Obviously, he went in the lottery. Mario (Chalmers) was a second round pick. Shady (Darrell Arthur) was a 27 pick. Sherron (Collins) was undrafted. Cole (Aldrich) ended up going 12 or 13 I guess. Sasha (Kaun) went like 39. Darnell (Jackson) went like 42 or whatever it was,” Self said.
“But, this is a team like that in that there's not a first, second or third pick, right now,” Self continued. “ I mean, I'm not saying somebody couldn't become that eventually but right now there's not, I wouldn't think. But we've got a whole bunch of good players and I'm excited about that because we do have good basketball players. We've got depth. We don't have much size.”
“But, we are pretty deep and pretty skilled at most of the positions and whether or not that translates to better teams, because a lot of teams, they give me two studs and three average guys and we'll go play anybody, and I'm not sure we're quite like that. I think we've got a whole bunch of really good players, a lot of balance.”