In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." We'll have Five Questions with someone from each team and I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Kansas.
1. The Big 12 belongs to the Kansas Jayhawks. Obvious as it may be, this seems like the most important item in any analysis of the upcoming KU season: That for the past eight years, under the guidance of Bill Self, Kansas has won at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title.
We've discussed this before, but it's totally worth a refresher. In February, after Thomas Robinson and Co. sealed the deal, I wrote the following:
Saturday's win sealed Kansas's share of the 2012 Big 12 regular-season title. This feat marks the eighth straight time Kansas has won at least a share its conference regular-season championship. After Saint Mary's strong finish in the West Coast Conference, which felled Gonzaga's bid at an 11th straight WCC title, KU's mark is now the longest active win streak in the country. Per ESPN Stats & Information, the next-longest are, or were, Xavier's five-year run in the A-10 (which is coming to an end this week) and Murray State and Belmont's three-year runs in the OVC and A-Sun, respectively.
The Atlantic 10 is a good league. The OVC and A-Sun occasionally berth a challenger or two. Saint Mary's has pushed Gonzaga for years. But none of those leagues are as consistently deep or talented or difficult to navigate as the Big 12.
I mean, just think about that. It's insane.
The Atlantic 10 is a mostly high-major league with a few mid-major members. The OVC and A-Sun are mid-majors in the purest sense (which, as always, is financial). So is the WCC, even if St. Mary's (and now BYU) compete with the Zags at a high-major level. None of them is the Big 12, with its score of deep-pocketed foes and NBA-talent rich rosters.
Many times in his tenure -- probably most glaringly in the past three years -- it has seemed as though Kansas' reign of dominance had to be on the wane. In 2010, Self lost Xavier Henry, Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, but the Jayhawks bounced back to win another title the following season. In 2011, Self waved farewell to the Morris twins and highly touted (if disappointing) guard Josh Selby, as well as senior guards Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar and Mario Little. And, of course -- despite a serious challenge from a brilliant Missouri team -- Kansas won the Big 12 title once more.
At this point, almost regardless of competition (see: 2010 Kansas State), it doesn't make sense to predict the Jayhawks to do anything other than win their conference title and finish the season with a top NCAA tournament seed.
The Kansas Jayhawks are the Apple of college basketball. Every quarter, every season, they deliver.
2. So, how do the Jayhawks deliver this season? It starts, as it often has during Self's run at the school, with returning players who begin as role players and blossom into stars.
We saw as much with Tyshawn Taylor (albeit in more meteoric fashion) and Thomas Robinson last season. Now both players are gone. The good news is that the other three 2012 starters -- center Jeff Withey, guard Elijah Johnson, and swingman Travis Releford -- return.
Releford is arguably the least intriguing of the three, which doesn't sound like a compliment, but actually kind of is: He's an elite wing defender who executes on his offensive possessions (spot-up shots) very well, gets to the free throw line at a solid rate, and rarely commits turnovers in the process. His ceiling may not blow your mind the way Robinson's (or even Taylor's) did, but with Releford you know what you're going to get. He'll be a valuable asset yet again.
Withey and Johnson are, however, intriguing, particularly because both now have a chance to shine. Withey was one of the best shot-blockers in the country last season -- his block percentage of 15.3 percent was the highest in the country (and yes, that's the same country Anthony Davis was a part of). He rebounds the ball well on both ends of the floor. The final addition to his game, and one that could make him come full circle this season, is a reliable low-post game over both shoulders. With his height and ability to set up shop on the low block, Withey could go from supporting player to a force to be reckoned with.
Johnson, meanwhile, will be called upon to handle the ball even more frequently than he did last season. He may not need to be as much of a pure shooter -- more on that below -- but he will take a larger role in the offense nonetheless. Self has a tradition of taking little-used guards and morphing them into thoroughly steady ball-swinging perimeter presences by their senior years, and Johnson appears to be the next player in line.
3. Still, even with those three players back, this will be a decidedly young Jayhawks team. Sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe played limited minutes in last season's rotation; in 2012-13, he'll be a much bigger part of the plan. But the real boost of youth will come from Tharpe's partial qualifying classmate Ben McLemore -- one of the country's top shooting guards in the Class of 2011, who missed last season thanks to NCAA academic ineligibility. With a year of practice under his belt, McLemore will jump into the Kansas lineup right away and -- by all accounts of his play this summer -- could be an immediate star.
And then there are the actual freshmen. Chief among them is Kansas native Perry Ellis, the No. 9-ranked power forward in the incoming class, who will contend for a starting spot alongside Withey (as well as returners Kevin Young and Justin Wesley) in the frontcourt. Small forward Andrew White and power forward Landen Lucas are fellow four-star arrivals.
Were this almost any other program in the country, I would currently be writing about how many questions there are about this team. I would be counting the reasons for uncertainty -- the former glue guys who will now take on leading roles, the readiness of the newest faces, if McLemore is worthy of his considerable hype. I would be scanning the Big 12 and maybe even arguing that Baylor is the more talented team, and thus the more likely Big 12 title contender.
And none of that would be wrong, specifically. But it wouldn't be right, either.
Because it would be glossing over one simple fact: This program absolutely owns the Big 12. And that as long as Self is around -- which will be a very long time -- you can't predict anything for Kansas except success.