It's alright to ask, even in April, "When's Late Night? And what will they call it this year? And isn't it about time they changed the name of the Williams Fund?"
No, it's not too soon.
After KU loses in the tournament, I usually go into a funk that'll last
for a month. Not this time, though. I am really, really excited about
next year's KU team.
They should contend for their seventh-straight Big 12 conference title
next year. I don't care who the Jayhawks lost. I have yet to hear a
good explanation for how the rest of the league is going to make up
Kansas should be a preseason top 10 team. The Jayhawks will be a Final
Four contender. They may be better equipped to make a deep March run
than this year's team was, in fact.
My optimism can be summed up in one word: athleticism.
As much as it will disappoint some folks (and as much as that sincerely
pains me), one has to look back at this past season in order to look
forward to next season. Expectations and predictions without context
are, well, dumb.
KU's lack of athleticism hounded them all season long. Thanks to the
physical, tough nature of his game, Sherron Collins was more athletic
and quick as a chubby freshman than he was as a senior who couldn't get
past anyone from Northern Iowa.
Cole Aldrich had become a freakish shot blocker and rebounder
who was, well, okay on offense. Think Dwight Howard. All those hours
spent with coach Danny Manning never did produce an unstoppable go-to
move, ala Manning's jump hook. And where did that nice 17-foot jumper
Xavier Henry was a 6-6 guard who played like he was 6-2 most
of the season. I don't think he ever truly believed that he was the
most physically gifted guy on the floor. It hurts me to say it, but one
media buddy of mine said X reminds him a lot of former KSU Wildcat and
Tampa Bay Buccaneer Josh Freeman. I can see that.
Brady Morningstar busts his arse every single night and is
good at chasing a shooter, but he doesn't disrupt opponents. Mario Chalmers disrupted opponents to the point that they had to account for
him when they game-planned for Kansas.
Finally, Tyrel Reed plays so hard, I'm the one chundering in a
courtside trashcan. Unfortunately, he just may not be athletic enough
to play more than 8-10 minutes a game.
Why is all this important?
Because athleticism – speed, quickness, anticipation – are the
foundation of the one thing Kansas basketball coach Bill Self loves
more than anything in the world except for his wife, his kids and
Iguana Dip: defense.
All season long, Self worried aloud that his team didn't play defense
with the intensity that he demanded. They didn't play defense with
enough energy, he said.
Likewise, Self had to address his team's perceived lack of a "killer
instinct" about as often as he breathes. Why wasn't a 14-point win a
24-point win? Why was a 24-point win not a 34-point win? Sure, you won
by 18, but your opponent outscored you by three in the second half –
Most nights, it wasn't because KU didn't shoot well or execute
adequately on offense. I'll argue that it arose out of a lack of the
kind of defense that is, for Self, the Holy Grail. It's the kind of
defense that makes opponents cry and ask to go home during the under-8
media timeout in the first half. And the reason the defense was less
than stifling this season was because the players just didn't have the
athleticism to pull it off.
Watch the tape. The 2007-08 Kansas team didn't finish opponents with a
bunch of threes or by shooting 70 percent. They finished people with
smothering defense and a ton of points off turnovers. The recipe for
that team's success was: Take ball from opponent. Convert. Repeat.
Many preach that effort and toughness are the keys to great defense.
Well, I'd argue that quick hands and feet, speed, anticipation and the
ability to jump out of the gym never hurt, either.
Which brings me to next year's team.
I'd be willing to bet the ranch that next year's KU starters will be
Thomas Robinson and Marcus Morris at the bigs, along with some
combination of Tyshawn Taylor, Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Josh Selby in the backcourt (Yeah, that's right. I said it.) And don't
forget Markieff Morris, who played very well at the end of the season,
and a healthy Mario Little will come off the bench. Royce Woolridge
will join the team, and the Jeff Withey Project will also continue.
Across the board, next year's Jayhawks will be longer, rangier and more
athletic. They'll be more flexible to play across positions, when
needed, and they'll be just plain faster than this past season's team
Unless Bill Self – the best coach in the country not named Izzo –
forgets how to coach and motivate between now and next October, that
athleticism will translate into defense. Self will teach it. He'll
coach it. He'll demand it. I'll bet Self gets it, too – the kind of
defense that makes him giggle like a school kid.
Long arms and quickness and anticipation will turn into defense, and
defense will create turnovers, and turnovers will become easy baskets.
Lots of ‘em. You're also going to see a lot more fast-break points next
year than you did this season.
The only chink in the armor is perimeter shooting. Releford is reported
to be a much better shooter now, but we'll have to wait till they turn
on the lights at Allen Field House before we know.
Johnson and Selby are unknown quantities at this level. That's not good
or bad; it just is.
At this point, it's reasonable to assume that Taylor will be looking up
at 40 percent shooting from behind the arc his whole career.
Morningstar and Reed – especially Reed – can shoot, but then you lose
on the defensive end and you're no better off than you were this past
season. Reed and Morningstar need to be about the third and fifth guys
off the bench. If they aren't, look for next year's KU team to look
about like this year's group with similar results.
Don't forget, though, that this year's team struggled from outside, and
they had a terrific season: a conference championship, a conference
tournament championship and a one-seed in the biggest sports spectacle
in the country.
I'm just optimistic that next year's team will be better suited to
enjoying the Madness a little bit longer.
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