Defending Champs Return to the Court

There's a new three-point line, a new roster, and different expectations. KU hoops is back kicking off another season with Late Night in the Phog.

It’s a year like no other.

The season after a title brings challenges. KU head coach Bill Self will have to replace a depleted roster, deal with loftier recruiting expectations, and knows his team has an even bigger bull’s eye on their chests.

But in case you haven’t noticed, Self is not one to back away from a challenge. His Jayhawks might be picked to finish 3rd in the Big 12 but Self continues to aim high.

 “Expectations will be the same. I’m not going into the season hoping to finish in the top four in the league. Our goal will still be to win the league, regardless of who we have,” said Self referring to the inexperience and youth on his roster. “That’s a pretty lofty goal when you have so many new guys, but I don’t think you want to bail your guys out by lowering the expectations just because they’re young.”

When Self was at Illinois his team coined the motto “youth is no excuse” and this team will attempt to follow in the footsteps of a young Illini team that started three freshmen and a sophomore yet finished a couple of ticks away from a Big Ten title.

That being said replacing names like Robinson, Rush, Kaun, Jackson, Chalmers, and Arthur is never easy - six players who accounted for more than their fair share of defense, scoring, leadership, and immense talent.

“We’re not as talented as we were last year. We lost five guys to the (NBA) draft and replaced them with young kids. But we are comparable to where we were three years ago when those guys that got drafted were all real young,” Self continued. “So we could be looking at this team three years from now and say that is parallel to the team that finished up in 2008. I hope that’s the case. We have good young players, there’s no doubt about that.”

Self’s new roster features five freshmen including the Morris twins who bring much-needed frontcourt help. Markieff (6-9), and brother Marcus (6-8) travelled a long road to eligibility at KU and were not allowed to participate in the practices leading up to the team’s trip to Canada in late August. The two Philly natives were an important part of Self’s recruiting class.

“Without those guys, we would have been tiny. But Marcus can score. He can make plays for others. Markieff is a good shooter. When you look at it, we haven’t really had any pick and pop guys that can stretch the defense beyond 15 or 16 feet. These two guys can do that, probably better than the other guys that we’ve had over time,” said Self.

After having to fill so many roster spots Self also dipped into the JUCO pool of talent to pull out two guards - Tyrone Appleton and Mario Little. Little was voted preseason Newcomer of the Year in the conference and Big 12 coaches are well-aware he was one of the nation’s best JUCO performers at Chipola College.

Seven newcomers in all will be adjusting to the speed of the college game at the highest level, and the perimeter players will be adjusting to a new three-point line. Backing the line up has been talked about for years and finally one foot later we have the new distance of 20’9”. The hope is that it will keep the marginal shooter from shooting the three and improve shooting percentages, and coaches are hopeful it will clear the congestion inside the lane.

“I think it’s going to affect all teams,” Self stated. “I don’t think we’ll have as consistent of a perimeter shooting team as we had last year, because when Mario (Chalmers) and Brandon (Rush) lined it up, there was a one out of two chance it was going in. Sherron (Collins) wasn’t far behind in that regard.”

Rush and Chalmers combined for over 150 treys last season. Collins shot a lower percentage (below 40 percent) than Rush and Chalmers but will be expected to pick up the slack. The three-point line was a dangerous weapon for KU last season but it remains to be seen how effective the Jayhawks will be behind the new line.

“I don’t know if we will utilize the three-point line as much as we did last year. The lines will affect everybody. It’s just new. I think over time, over two or three years, everybody will look back and say that’s been good for our game. I do like it.”

Two national championship mainstays will be expected to step up their game a notch this season. There’s no reason Collins and forward Cole Aldrich won’t be much-improved. Aldrich is still riding the wave of momentum after his Final Four performance vs. North Carolina last year. Cole proved he can play with any player in the country and has used that as a springboard for his sophomore season.

“There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be one of the better big men performers in our league. He may not be a 15 point a game guy, but you should be able to pencil him in for double figure production and seven to eight rebounds every night. He’s got a great skill set, and he’s getting tougher all the time,” Self said about his 6-10 center. “The North Carolina game did wonders for his confidence in my opinion. He had a great offseason in large part because he was so confident throughout it.”

“It’s exciting, it’s really exciting,” Aldrich said. “I went through last year knowing that we had some great guys on our team like Shady (Darrell Arthur), Darnell (Jackson) and Sasha (Kaun). I knew it was going to be tough to get some minutes from those guys, so I just took practice everyday as my game and I learned a lot from those guys.”

Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush took turns being the team’s clutch player last season. One would assume that role will be filled by junior guard Sherron Collins. Collins has certainly succeeded at KU in his share of big moments including a critical steal during the waning stages of regulation in last year’s title game.

“I look forward to taking big shots. I might not always be able to take the shot, but as long as I can make something happen for my teammates I am fine with that as well,” said Collins who was selected first team all-league by the coaches.
Collins was challenged early on by Self after returning to Lawrence out of shape but word is Collins put in the work and is ready for action.

It’s a new season with an emotional Memphis victory in the rearview mirror. So tonight at Late Night while managing to tip their hat to last year’s title run, the Jayhawks will officially shift their focus to the year ahead.  

“I’ve thought about last year a lot,” Self admitted. “It was a great season. I’ve thought a lot about last year, and why last year was so special, and how we can put ourselves in position to duplicate that in the near future. It’s going to be difficult, but it is for everybody. I’ve given a lot of thought as to why that was great. We think we have a pretty good handle on it, and hopefully we can get our guys to perform at some point in time at the same level those guys did.”

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