This is the second straight year we've had reason to doubt whether Kansas should be the Big 12 favorite. Considering the Jayhawks' run of success in the conference -- seven straight regular-season conference titles, four of which were won just before KU took the conference tournament title, not to mention that 2008 national championship -- this seems somewhat silly.
Last summer, we had our reasons -- namely the projected ascent of a Jacob Pullen-led Kansas State team. This year, the reasons have less to do with the rest of the conference's makeup (though there is plenty of talent out there) and more to do with the massive personnel losses Kansas suffered this past spring.
Tyshawn Taylor is Kansas' only returning starter heading into this season.
The Morris twins are in the NBA. Senior guards Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed graduated. Josh Selby, the highly touted freshman who never got his game on track -- and thus caused Kansas fans to hope he wouldn't make a premature leap to the NBA -- made that leap anyway. Mario Little, a handy reserve guard, is gone, too.
Meanwhile, KU's incoming recruiting class is good but not great. Of course, most programs would love to land the No. 22-ranked class in the country. But for Kansas, which has had few peers on the recruiting trail in recent seasons -- perhaps only Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke have matched coach Bill Self's efforts among elite players -- it's just sort of solid.
So what does all this mean? After seven years of dominance, are the Jayhawks due for a downgrade?
I'm not so convinced.
It's not that there isn't good Big 12 competition out there. Missouri returns all five starters from last season's solid squad. Baylor has NBA lottery prospect Perry Jones, potential one-and-done Quincy Miller and a host of other athletic, talented players. Texas A&M (provided the Aggies haven't defected to the Texas shadow-free EuroLeague by the time this piece is published) could compete for the conference title. Texas, as always, is talented and intriguing.
But Kansas should still be really good, too. That's the thing about recruiting multiyear players who don't need to jump to the NBA immediately: When players leave, expected or otherwise, you don't have to land the No. 1 class in the country to compete for trophies. Instead, you can do what the Hawks did last offseason. They didn't rebuild. They reloaded.
Pardon the cliche, but it works. In 2010-11, Kansas lost its three best players: Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry. Self tweaked his lineup, put Markieff Morris and the senior guards on the floor, and changed his offense to feature much more side-to-side motion and face-up work from the Morris brothers. KU's offense betrayed it in the Elite Eight loss to VCU, but for the 37 games before it, the Jayhawks were brilliant to watch. If they weren't quite as good as 2010's version, they were still very, very good.
It's fair to expect a similar recalibration this season, and Self again has promising young talent -- several of whom were merely reserves in 2011 -- to work with. Chief among them is forward Thomas Robinson. Robinson was one of the nation's best rebounders last season, and he did so in limited minutes. This year, he'll be much more important to the Jayhawks' chances. He'll have to generate his own offense in the post, deal with double-teams and weakside help, and still crash the glass and patrol the lane with the same gusto he achieved last season in limited minutes. Judging by Robinson's performance at the Nike Skills Camps this summer, he's more than capable of that kind of season.
Perhaps the biggest key to Kansas' success this season will be its lone returning starter, point guard Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor has had a roller coaster of a career in Lawrence. He's been a key contributor for three seasons, no small feat considering the talent that has passed through the Jayhawks' backcourt during that time. But he's also run afoul of Self several times. Those issues have come on the court (Taylor forcing things, playing out of control, trying to carve a larger role) and off (Taylor's infamous involvement in the fight with football players, his Facebook posts, etc.).
To his credit, Taylor was better in nearly every area in 2011. He was KU's lone backcourt starter who could consistently create offense off the dribble. But he still committed far too many turnovers. Taylor's 27.4 percent assist rate was nearly eclipsed by the 26.7 percent of possessions in which he coughed it up. That has to change. Suddenly, Taylor finds himself the wise, old sage in a rather young backcourt. Now it's his turn to lead.
Among the guards Self can plug and play with are juniors Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson, both of whom negated Selby's disappointing season in 2011 by shooting the lights out when called upon. (Releford made 38 percent of his 3s, Johnson 40 percent.) Self could choose to start both players alongside Taylor, Robinson and center Jeff Withey, and his team would look theoretically similar to the one that scored so easily in 2011.
More likely than not, the Jayhawk newcomers -- McLemore included -- will slide into the reserve roles played by Releford, Johnson, Robinson and Withey. There are no one-and-dones in this class, no personnel panaceas guaranteed to take Kansas to the next level. But I'm not sure this should be discouraging news for KU fans. The Jayhawks faced arguably worse personnel losses last summer, and the little-used reserves from that team stepped up and became ruthlessly efficient starters on the one that followed it. The talent is still there, isn't it? So why can't a similar process happen again?
Forget the one-and-done prospects, the top-five recruiting classes. Kansas has that kind of talent on its roster already. Winning seven straight Big 12 titles isn't always just about landing elite players. (Of course, that doesn't hurt.) It's also about recruiting really good players who are willing to wait a year or two before their time comes. No program in the country has done that better in the past decade than Kansas.
That puts the Jayhawks in a unique position: Even without an elite recruiting class, and even with four of their five starters now gone, Kansas could be every bit as good as it was last year. There are no guarantees -- the Jayhawks have a lot to put together before the Maui Invitational comes calling in November -- but I'm loathe to doubt a Self-coached reload.