First Impressions

The curtain rose on the exhibition season and moved KU one step closer to beginning its quest for a second national title in the last three years. Division II Fort Hays State was the opposition and the expectation was a huge blowout. Though KU eventually won by nearly 40 (107-68), it had to shake off some early rust.

First play of the game was a Markieff Morris dunk off excellent ball reversal just the way head coach Bill Self likes it. But by the end of the first 20 minutes, Self's team scored 54 but gave up 35. A less than stellar rebounding advantage after the first 20 minutes probably made for plenty of locker room fodder (20-17). Plus there were some defensive breakdowns that will be the topic of conversation in the film room over the next few days too. But rarely over the years have Self's teams come out of the gate firing on all cylinders. Usually there's a steady improvement you can count on – from game to game and even from half to half.

This one was like, well, the first game of a team voted number one with overwhelming talent – flashes of brilliance sprinkled in with room for improvement.

"We make the game harder than what it is because we don't share the basketball as well as what most of our teams have done in the past," Self continued. "I think we'll get there but right now it's not quite as natural. I think the ball sticks to much and then obviously we don't guard yet."

A couple of things remained the same. Not surprising Sherron Collins led the team in scoring with 19 points and certainly it was no shocker that fellow Naismith candidate Cole Aldrich notched another double-double (13pt, 13 rebounds). But maybe it was an unexpected start for the two stars.

"I thought they both played pretty poorly early," said Self about his top two scorers. "After the last 6 minutes of the first half Sherron made a couple of shots and got going and he did some good things the second half. I thought Cole was the best player in the game to start the second half. I mean they both showed flashes but we gotta be more consistent."

Collins and Aldrich have help this year and despite the inauspicious start from the two KU put up 54 first half points and appears to have plenty of options on the offensive end.

"Considering Cole had one basket the first half and Sherron didn't score much I thought we scored the ball better than what I thought we would if those guys weren't really involved in the scoring. I think we have more weapons," said Self.  

Another pleasant surprise was seeing Collins in possibly the best shape of his KU career. Strength and Conditioning coach Andrea Hudy has clearly been working this group of Jayhawks hard. Even freshman Xavier Henry looks slimmer than he's been in quite in awhile. Two summers ago the talk was how he was probably carrying around a little too much extra weight but a slimmer, leaner Henry got the nod in the starting lineup tonight and showed his lefty shooting touch on several occasions (14 points, 2-4 3-pt FG).

"He's definitely a weapon we didn't have last year, said Self of his freshman McDonald's All-American. "I think his biggest strength is his body. I mean he's a strong guys that can make plays through his strength."

Self went with Henry, Markieff Morris, Aldrich, Collins, and Tyrel Reed as a starting lineup. But as will be the case many times this year, all 10 Jayhawks who saw action scored and six players hit the double-figure mark.

The Morris twins look stronger, more aggressive, and more polished. Collins stroke from long range looked deft. Tyshawn Taylor was a spark off the bench especially in the second half. But it was the freshmen who provided quite the introduction.

Elijah Johnson has another gear and has ups at 6-2. In one of the highlights of the night Johnson took an alley-oop pass from his teammate who kindly gave up the #15. Taylor, the former #15, fed Johnson for a dunk that got quite a rise out of the crowd. But the freshman we might spend many mornings at the water cooler talking about is Thomas Robinson. Robinson is an energy player whose pursuit of the basketball could be his most valuable quality. The 6-9 forward will definitely keep the Morris twins honest all year with the energy he brings and the intangibles he provides. The D.C. native was even the subject not so long ago on ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla's Twitter page. Fraschilla told fans to "remember the name". He can rebound out of his zone and he has a college-ready body. Both Johnson and Robinson have the potential to be real crowd favorites too. Get used to hearing Self talk about Johnson's athleticism and Robinson's "motor" for most of this season.

"I thought all our young kids played good. I thought Thomas played real well, he just fouled. I thought Xavier showed flashes. I think Elijah is a different caliber athlete as everyone saw tonight on a couple of plays," said Self, praising his freshmen.

Johnson's athleticism sparked conversation but his coach was also quick to point out that he can play even faster but he does tend to get out of control and bit loose with the basketball. But in the open floor Johnson leaves little doubt that he's a valuable weapon.

"One thing he really does well in transition he pitches the ball ahead and makes easy plays for other guys. I think he's going to be a really good player," Self concluded.

Self also flirted with the blank canvas he has utilizing many different types of lineups and admitted it was good to be able to fiddle with some different combinations. At one point there were big lineups – like ones with both Morris twins in at once – and small lineups with Johnson, Taylor, and Collins in the game – and young lineups featuring Henry, Robinson, and Johnson. Self has options for sure and is of course hoping to find a solid nine-man rotation. As a result there are redshirt options. The staff was contemplating a redshirt possibility for Johnson but they are inching further and further away from that idea. There are still redshirt options for Conner Teahan, Mario Little, and Travis Releford. If a player is to redshirt and is NOT a freshman, then he cannot even participate in an exhibition game according to NCAA rules.

An overloaded roster is a good problem to have and Self admitted with continued improvement specifically from this freshmen class, KU could have something really special by January.

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