Happy New Year Jayhawk fans! The good news is your team finished the year 2007 undefeated, but what will 2008 mean for your beloved Jayhawks? Is it destiny 20 years after KU's last title? It will take more than good fortune to win a national title but after seeing most of the country's top teams play over the last few weeks I think Kansas has a terrific chance to add to its long list of championships.
There's a ton of good ball being played all over the country and plenty of teams impressed me along the way including number one North Carolina, wow, they've got it all. Tennessee is relentless and probably a big man away from being a top 3-4 team in the country. Not sure many teams play harder than the Vols. Memphis has been up and down this season but to come through its incredible non-conference slate without a blemish is extraordinary. UCLA is quietly going about its business and anyone who doubts this team won't be tough to contend with in March is mistaken. Georgetown is clearly the best team in the Big East especially now that Pittsburgh is plagued with the injury bug. Tom Izzo once again has Michigan State back to Final Four caliber. Texas can beat anyone on any given night despite its two recent losses, and Washington State is really good. If you get the chance to watch some late night Pac-10, don't miss Tony Bennett's squad, they play the game like it should be played.
After all that, I still can't help thinking that Kansas might just be the best of the best. I know, I'm extremely biased but hear me out. There are three categories where KU stands out from the rest in my mind.
I don't think there's a guard tandem on the planet that wrecks more havoc on the defensive end than Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson. I can't remember a player who gets his hands on more basketballs than Chalmers. Mario is the ultimate anticipator and can hurt you on or off the ball. Honestly, I watch a lot of college ball and I haven't seen many dominate on the defensive end like Mario does.
On the ball, I don't think there's a tougher defender than Russell. He's New York City strong as his head coach put it best after watching him notch eight steals against Yale, "I wouldn't want him guarding me." And I think there will be a lot of players hoping that Robinson doesn't end up defending them.
The challenge for this duo is knowing when to take chances. Obviously against a team like Yale you can play the helter skelter defense because the Bulldogs aren't much of a threat to go by you off the dribble. But as the competition stiffens, the steals will probably lessen, and I expect these two seasoned guards to play more of a shut-you-down style where they pick and choose their spots. They're veterans and they've been through the rigors of conference play before, I still expect these two to set the tone defensively.
I'm not sure there's a team in the country with as much balance as this one. I don't see that as anything but a positive. Shutting one player down will not beat the Jayhawks. Seven different players have led the team in scoring out of the 13 games played. Different night, different guy for Self.
Remember though, only five guys get to play at once. KU's fifth year head coach certainly will need to get a comfortable rotation when the games get tighter but having 9-10 legitimate weapons at your disposal is a great problem to have. Currently, five players are averaging double-figures and there are seven players averaging between seven and 13 points.
There's not a team in the country that combines so much experience AND talent. Self has both at almost every position.
Self mentioned his team's primary New Year's resolution would be to "stay hungry". With the type of experience Self can put on the floor, I don't see this as being a problem. We've mentioned before KU's tough Big 12 schedule, but if there's a team that can handle it, it's this group of Jayhawks.
Come tournament time, I don't think Self will have to conjure up any motivational speeches this group has been tantalizingly close to college basketball's hallowed ground before. 2008's version of the Big Dance will be the last go around for six seniors, and possible a few others, expect KU to play like it.
Those are the three primary reasons I think Kansas could and should, win it all. Self may not have a team this loaded again for a few years and he knows it. It's hard to say anything short of a national would still be a success.
Every team in America has a weakness. Carolina is a bit inconsistent from the perimeter, Memphis is suspect from outside and at times struggles in the half court, Tennessee lacks a dominant big man, etc…and the list goes on.
For Kansas the weakness, at least early on, appears to be rebounding. The good news is that the answer to that problem should be on Self's roster. I believe that Cole Aldrich is going to earn a decent amount of playing time during the conference slate because of how many rebounds he grabs per minute played (0.36 rebounds). No offense to Sasha Kaun but he's played 110 more minutes than Aldrich this season and has the same number of defensive rebounds as Cole (30).
I think Darnell Jackson, who currently leads the team in rebounding (6.5 rpg) will pick things up on the glass. When KU needed rebounds against USC, Jackson was the man to grab them. As the games get tighter, Jackson will play more crucial minutes and he will increase his team-leading average in the weeks to come.
The players who definitely need to make a concerted effort to grab more rebounds are Darrell Arthur (who was actually blanked in a game this year), Brandon Rush, and even Sasha Kaun. Kaun still has trouble grabbing a clean rebound but his size and athleticism should be a plus for Kansas in Big 12 play.
Free throw shooting is an Achilles Heel for a lot of teams and that includes Kansas. Memphis will lose another close game before the year is over because of free throw shooting, I'm convinced of it. Kansas is following down that same path shooting under 63 percent from the line as a team. That will not get it done. It nearly cost the Jayhawks the game at Georgia Tech and with so many daunting conference road games, free throws and rebounding will be an absolute necessity.