On Thursday morning, the sun rose. The morning paper landed on doorsteps around the country. Traffic jams stalled its highways.
And Kansas was picked to win its ninth consecutive Big 12 crown by the league’s coaches.
No surprise, right?
To date, Bill Self’s program has won at least a share of the conference championship each of the last eight years.
The league announced Thursday that the Jayhawks were the unanimous picks to win the conference title for the 11th time. Kansas was followed by (in order) Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas, Kansas State, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Texas Tech and TCU.
It’s easy to justify this prediction. Jeff Withey might be the best interior defender in the country. Multiple weapons from a team that lost to Kentucky in last season’s national title game return. There’s also a strong recruiting class led by Perry Ellis.
But it’s not a flawless projection. Yes, I think the Jayhawks will win the league, too.
Here’s why it’s not a guarantee:
Jeff Withey’s offensive game: Maybe he won’t need one. But the Jayhawks lost 34.3 ppg with the departures of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Withey recorded just three double-digit efforts in the last 11 games of the 2011-12 season. He was 2-for-8 in the national title game. I know he spent a lot of time working on his offensive game this summer. So improvement should be expected. The Jayhawks need more from him on that end of the floor.
The point guard situation: Kansas has won without true point guards in the past. Tyshawn Taylor wasn’t really a true point guard last year. But he was a playmaker. Elijah Johnson, who will probably play the role for Self’s squad this season, will make better decisions and his performance in the NCAA tournament proved that he’s capable of leading the program. But he’s also the team’s greatest scoring threat – although Ben McLemore could eventually assume that role. And I think he’s better playing on the wing next to a point guard who handles the ball the majority of the time. Until we know if Naadir Tharpe and/or Anrio Adams can play point guard within Self’s system, Johnson will take on that responsibility. It’s not a question of “Can he play point guard?” But “Should he play point guard?” is legitimate. Right now, he doesn’t have a choice.
Baylor and Oklahoma State: If the Marcus Smart buzz is accurate, then Oklahoma State could shock the league in 2012-13. Both Smart and LeBryan Nash are pro prospects. Markel Brown (10.5 ppg) could explode this season, too. If Travis Ford’s squad plays smarter and enhances its defense (No. 107 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings), it will shock the Big 12 and the country. The Jayhawks’ more immediate threat is a Baylor squad that possesses one of the top backcourts in the country (Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, A.J. Walton and Deuce Bello) and a shot-blocking 7-footer who can also handle the ball (Isaiah Austin). That might not be enough to end Kansas’ streak. But both teams could prove to be serious threats.
Replacing Robinson: With a blue chip program such as Kansas, elite athletes rotate in and out each year. Ellis is one of the top freshmen in the country. He’s expected to step in and immediately contribute. And he won’t have to do it alone inside with Withey returning. But Robinson spread his toughness throughout the program. Proof? Missouri-Kansas Round 2. Robinson’s heart carried the program in its toughest moment of the regular season. And I think the Jayhawks will miss that. Other leaders will emerge. But how will they match Robinson’s intangibles and spirit? He played with a grit that ultimately defined the Jayhawks as they reached the national title game. Who will play that role this season? Who will Kansas turn to in those difficult stretches?
You can’t win them all: At some point, a team must fall, right? Kansas hasn’t tasted second place in nearly a decade. And with the personnel the Jayhawks will have this season, it’s unlikely that they’ll experience that feeling in 2012-13. But, never say never. The Jayhawks can’t win forever. Or can they?