KU Looks to Blend Youth, Experience

The entire country knows that coach Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks are about to embark on the 2009-10 basketball team with a full cupboard and a boatload of preseason #1 rankings from media outlets ranging from The Sporting News to Cat Fancy.

Even Bill Self admits to discussing hanging another banner in Allen Field House with his team leaders, senior G Sherron Collins and junior C Cole Aldrich.

"They have a chance to leave their mark on this place like few others have," Self said.

Don't misunderstand: Self's not calling his shot. He's not trying to show anyone up, and he's not trying to let his players know how much it means to him. He never even mentioned his little finger. But if you got enough Prairie Village Burritos and Iguana Dip in him, he'd probably admit that he likes his chances this season. He talked  freely about how much he likes his team at KU Basketball Media Day.

He says this team is similar to the national championship Jayhawk squad from two seasons ago, talent-wise, but he says there's a monumental difference between the two groups.

"That team that won it was coming of a 33-5 record and winning the league and the conference and losing in the first round and in the elite eight and was battled-tested. They were tough," Self remembered.

And your current squad, Coach?

"This team basically didn't operate last year in a pressurized situation because everybody was happy with their performance. You go 14-2 and go to the Sweet 16, a lot of people probably were telling them how good they did where that team before was driven to do better."

Self says that his latest edition of the team isn't as athletic as the national championship crew, but they're bigger and better equipped to handle an injury.

"I think this team is probably deeper, which doesn't always translate into positive things because you can only play so many guys. If a key injury occurs, if your key players go out, whether it's injury or discipline, it's going to hurt, but maybe if a key injury or two occurs, we have enough depth to overcome it."

Self states unequivocally that as Collins and Aldrich go, so go the Jayhawks, but their roles have changed. Self wants Aldrich to show more leadership, and so far he's pleased with the way the big Minnesotan (yah, you betcha!) has stepped up to that challenge.

"Cole's getting more and more comfortable in that role and guys do listen to him," Self said.

He also needs Collins to let go of some of the scoring load and spend more time making the players around him better.

Self said, "(Collins) has got some  guys this year he can distribute to and that he has some confidence in that are maybe a little more proven from a scoring capability. I still want him to look for his shot, but I don't think he'll feel the pressure of last year."

Collins will still have the green light to do what he thinks he needs to do to help the Jayhawks win, and while Collins knows he's got more offensive help, Self knows who's going to want the ball when the game is on the line.

"I see Sherron as being a guy who could really care less who shoots the ball the first 30 minutes and then the last 10, he's going to be the one who will want to shoot the ball," the coach said.

Self thinks 7-0, 225 Arizona transfer Jeff Withey will play an important role in Aldrich's productivity because another big body means that unlike last year, Aldrich won't be forced to guard the other team's best big man, even when he's in foul trouble.

One of the players expected to help out in the front court is 6-9, 230 freshman F Thomas Robinson. Self loves players whose motors never stop running, and he has one in Robinson. He expects this freshman-in-a-senior's body to make an impact on the KU front court, including speeding the development of Marcus and Markieff Morris.

Self planted his tongue firmly in his cheek and broke this Morris twins newsflash to the gathered media: "I don't know if you guys ever noticed this but they could be frustrating at times." Hilarity ensued. Despite inconsistent play, however, Self praised the twins for their hustle and enthusiasm. Robinson will force them to become more consistent.

"He's got a motor. If (the Morris twins) are not playing full speed, (Robinson will) go right through 'em. Once he gets comfortable – and it may take him awhile to get comfortable – it's going to be hard-pressed not to put him on the court for significant minutes," the coach said.

Self continued on the Morris brothers, "(Marcus) and Kieff's bodies have improved. I think Marcus is a really talented guy. He's a skilled four man or a big three. I could see putting a real big team out there, and then I could see playing small with him at the four which is primarily how we played last year. He'll be much more consistent, much more improved. He's a very good player."

The twins aren't the only ones with tickets to the gun show, though. Incoming frosh G Xavier Henry (6-6, 220), along with Robinson, are impressive, too.

"(Robinson) and Xavier are just different, if you look at them. Physically, they're just different. They look like 22-year-old men instead of 18-year-old kids," Self said. KU's had some impressive young specimens, but none as "physical-looking" as a freshman as Thomas.

Self tempered the expectations placed on Henry, his prized recruit. Self tries to shelter all his freshman, but he's never had one like Henry, who's expected to be off to the NBA after a year at Kansas.

Self explained, "I think expectations would be high for Xavier no matter where he want to school. I felt like, with the guys we have returning, there would be less pressure on him where defenses might be designed to go after him. Expectations will be high, but I don't think he'll feel pressure because he's got other guys who can pick up the slack, at least until he gets totally comfortable.

Henry will experience the on-court ups and downs all freshman experience, Self said, but with such a strong cast, he shouldn't worry about it.

"He's never played with other good players. He's always been a volume shooter; he takes a lot of shots to get his points, and in college, you've got to be efficient. He's really a talented scorer. He just has a knack for getting the ball in the basket."

Self also talked about his prized recruit's older brother, coveted in his own right. CJ Henry was supposed to attend Kansas four years ago to play basketball until the New York Yankees came along and gave him several hundred thousands reasons not to play ball for the Jayhawks.

He's back in Lawrence now, a 23-year-old college freshman with unique sports and life experiences that none of his younger counterparts have had. That, said Self, makes the elder Henry a real asset to the team.

"He's already impacted our team on a leadership standpoint. He's not afraid of his own voice at all. He likes that. Some guys are nervous about saying anything; he doesn't care. But he shouldn't: he's 23 years old."

Self said that Henry has been bitten by the injury bug the last few years, which probably accelerated his retirement from professional baseball. However, if he can build on where he left off in high school, he'll make a substantial impact on the Jayhawks' chances.

Self also said he expects good things from senior guard Mario Little (6-5, 220), although he said that he's excited about seeing Little play because, well, he's never really seen him play healthy. He showed some inspired play in spurts last year, but he never really broke loose. He couldn't due to leg problems.

"He had that rod put in his leg in the spring, and that took the majority of the summer to get 100% but he's moving better than he has at any time since he's been here. He'll find his way. He's going to be healthy enough to give us a lot more than he did last year," the coach said.

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