- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's an exciting time to be a Kansas fan.
That sounds a little silly, doesn't it? Really, when isn't it a good time to be a Kansas fan? In 10 seasons under Bill Self, the Jayhawks have won or shared the last nine Big 12 regular-season titles, a ridiculous streak no program in the country, not even the most dominant mid-majors, can match. They've won six conference tournament titles, and averaged 30.6 wins per season in that span. In 2008, Kansas won the program's third national title thanks to one of the most thrilling shots in college hoops history. They've been seeded No. 1 in the NCAA tournament bracket in five of the last seven seasons.
This success didn't come after some extended period of suffering; it came after an already very successful coach (Roy Williams) made the difficult decision to take his dream job (North Carolina), which ended up working out for everyone. The Jayhawks play in arguably the best -- and probably the loudest -- building in the country. "Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk" is one of the best sporting songs this side of English football.
Should we go on? The point is, it's always good to be a Kansas fan. Even in the darkest, Ali Farokhmanesh-induced days, the Jayhawks faithful have it better than just about any other program in the country.
And despite all that, I am still willing to argue that this is an especially exciting time for Kansas, mostly thanks to two words:
Before Wiggins' commitment, Kansas was losing all five of its starters -- four seniors and a freshman who might be the No. 1 overall pick -- and replacing them with a handful of minor contributors and a crop of talented but hardly overwhelming talent. Marcus Smart was back at Oklahoma State and gunning for a conference title. The notion that 2013-14 would be the year Kansas' force-choke grip on the Big 12 finally loosened ran rampant through the college basketball cognoscenti.
After Wiggins' commitment, followed by the news that Memphis senior forward Tarik Black would also join up, the whole notion seemed laughable. Self had already reloaded with a very good recruiting class, including Joel Embiid, the No. 1 center, and Wayne Selden, the No. 4 small forward. Then he added a highly skilled 2-3-4 hybrid with handles and a 3-point shot.
It would be easy, given Wiggins' recruitment and the accompanying giddiness, to assume the hardest part of Self's job was over. False. In its own way, this season may be the toughest challenge of Self's already illustrious career. This isn't the usual Jayhawks' reload. Typically, when a score of players leaves Lawrence for NBA glory, Self replaces them with a crop of fully ripened second-, third-, and fourth-year players who can play his high-low offense from sheer muscle memory. The Jayhawks have had one-and-dones, but in an now seven-year era culturally dominated by eight-month players, Self has more often achieved success by unleashing the Thomas Robinsons and Jeff Witheys of the world after two or three seasons on the bench.
He won't have that luxury this season. He will be playing more freshmen at the same time than at any point in recent memory.
Because of those freshmen, it has been easy to gloss over how important Kansas' returning players always are to the Jayhawks' success, and how little that will change next season. There are three returning contributors likely to play big minutes: sophomore forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, and junior guard Naadir Tharpe.
Tharpe is easily the most important of the three.
That's not to say he's the best. Ellis, a four-time class 6A Kansas state champion at Wichita Heights High School, had by far the most efficient season of the three in his rookie campaign, posting a 114.1 usage rate and comparable offensive and defensive rebounding percentages to Withey. He played just 33.4 percent of the Jayhawks' available minutes, and he struggled at times, but more often than not he was good. He will be good. Traylor, for his part, is extremely raw and athletic, which also makes him extremely exciting.
But Ellis and Traylor are forwards and with Wiggins, Black, Selden and Embiid, Kansas has at least four guys who can play some combination of the traditional 3, 4, and 5 spots. Ellis will play plenty; he's something close to a lock to start at the power forward spot, thanks to systemic experience alone. It's not that Ellis isn't good. It's that Self doesn't need Ellis to be good -- at least as much as he needs Tharpe.
That's because Tharpe is a veteran point guard on a team noticeably short on both veterans and point guards. Unless mostly untouted freshman Frank Mason surprises, four-star freshman Connor Frankamp, the No. 10 ranked point in the class, is the only other option at the spot.
That sound you heard was Kansas fans collectively shuddering. Tharpe is that kind of player -- clearly talented, clearly getting better, still maddeningly frustrating. His, ahem, nadir (sorry, but it had to happen eventually) last season came in Kansas' loss at TCU, when he finished 1-of-15 on some of the least-advised late-game shots you'll ever see. Tharpe wasn't that bad, obviously, but he was never a really efficient player; he finished with a 99.9 offensive rating, shooting 35.8 percent from inside the arc and 33.0 percent from beyond. Likewise, while he assisted on 28.3 percent of his possessions, he turned the ball over on 21.1 of them. At times, it seemed the only thing keeping Tharpe off the bench was senior guard Elijah Johnson's profound struggles.
For Kansas to legitimately contend as a national title candidate, Tharpe will have to be better. The good news? He won't have to score. Not with Wiggins and Selden, Embiid, Ellis and Black. However, what Tharpe will have to do is arguably just as important. He'll have to play great defense at the point of attack. He'll have to avoid turnovers. He'll have to hit the occasional outside shot. And he'll have to lead Kansas on the break, when it can avoid getting bogged down in the crowded half court, and most effectively unleash Wiggins' massive ability.
The first three, if not givens, seem eminently achievable. The fast-breaking responsibilities are the biggest concern. Last season, per Synergy scouting data, Tharpe ranked in the seventh percentile in the country in transition efficiency. Overall, Tharpe averaged just 0.654 points per transition possession. As the ballhandler, he averaged .821 -- better, but average at best.
Tharpe will have the luxury of playing alongside a swath of talented big men and probably the best amateur basketball player on earth. He won't have to do everything; he won't even have to do all that much. What he will have to do is make good decisions, particularly on the break.
The 2013-14 season is new territory for both Self and the Jayhawks. It is extremely exciting, yes, but like anything worth getting excited about, it's a little scary, too. Tharpe is a three-year veteran at a veteran-led program that is suddenly devoid of veterans, in the most important position on the floor. It's his job to minimize the scary parts and maximize the excitement, to represent the solidity that has defined Kansas in one of the more successful decades in the sport's history.
It's a different kind of pressure than what Wiggins will face -- but it is pressure all the same.