Kansas talented, but also very young
With newcomers all over, the Jayhawks might need some time and patience
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas basketball fans have heard all offseason about how well Andrew Wiggins can shoot, dunk and defend.
Now they'll find out if he can dance.
Wiggins and the rest of the Jayhawks' No. 2-ranked recruiting class will be unveiled Friday night when Kansas begins its season with "Late Night in the Phog" at Allen Fieldhouse.
"I'm ready to step out in front of everyone for the first time," Wiggins said. "I'll be nervous -- a good nervous, not bad."
Even though it concludes with an intrasquad scrimmage, most of the evening will involve variety-show-style skits, impersonations, videos and dance-offs among players. A bit corny? Sure. But that never stops a sellout crowd of 16,300 from showing up to the Late Night festivities.
The arrival of Wiggins and his freshman classmates has enhanced the buzz about this year's event -- and season -- even more.
"From what I can tell, this is the most anticipated start of the season we've had since I've been here," 11th-year coach Bill Self said. "I can't ever remember us having this much hype."
The question now is whether the Jayhawks can live up to it.
Or rather, how quickly.
Self is confident KU will be one of the best teams in the country by January or February. But the road to a 10th straight Big 12 title and a deep NCAA tournament run may be filled will a few more speed bumps than usual.
Kansas lost all five starters from last season's Sweet 16 squad, meaning it's likely that six of the top nine players in this year's rotation will be newcomers (five freshmen and Memphis transfer Tarik Black).
Mix in what is easily the nation's toughest nonconference schedule and Self can't envision the Jayhawks matching last year's win total of 33.
"We'll go through more ups and downs than we have in the past, without question," Self said. "But the downs are usually what allow us to be good in the end."
In other words, Kansas fans, be patient.
Considering Self's history, there's no reason to believe it won't pay off in the end.
The Jayhawks have averaged 30 wins in Self's 10 seasons, including a national-best 32.6 victories over the past seven years. KU's run of nine straight Big 12 titles is the most by a team from a major conference since UCLA captured 13 straight league crowns from 1967 to '79.
Of all his great Kansas teams -- including his 2008 NCAA championship squad -- Self likes the talent of this group the most.
"We're as deep as we've ever been," Self said. "We have as many good players in our gym as we've ever had."
Wiggins -- the nation's top-ranked recruit -- has commanded most of the headlines, but Self said wing Wayne Selden has been the most impressive freshman at practice thus far. Selden is being hailed as a potential top-10 pick in this summer's NBA draft along with classmate Joel Embiid, a 7-foot center who has as high of a ceiling as any player on the roster.
Self said Wichita native Conner Frankamp "shoots it as well as anyone we've ever recruited." Point guard Frank Mason will back up junior Naadir Tharpe. Wing Brannen Greene will also vie for minutes.
As talented as Kansas' freshman class may be, Self said his current team is "not even close" to being as good as some of his standout units of the past. This group still needs to learn how to defend at a high level, he said, while understanding the importance of sharing the ball and never taking a play off. The little things.
Self knows the newcomers will eventually "get it." It's just a matter of when.
"At the end of the day," Self said, "the key performers on our team -- especially early -- may be last year's players: Naadir and Perry [Ellis] and Jamari [Traylor]. Those guys are important. Hopefully they'll play at an advanced level and the new guys will come along fast."
The Jayhawks won't have much choice.
Kansas' second game of the season is against Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago. The nonconference schedule also includes road tilts against Florida and Colorado, home games against Georgetown and San Diego State and a showdown with New Mexico at the Sprint Center.
The Jayhawks will spend Thanksgiving in the Bahamas, where they could face teams such as Villanova, Iowa and Tennessee in the Battle 4 Atlantis. The nonleague slate is by far the most difficult Kansas has ever played under Self -- and it's even more daunting considering KU's youth and inexperience.
"Our schedule is a joke," Self said. "I don't know why I did it. It may be too much too soon. These guys are going to get indoctrinated to what big-time college ball is right off the bat. It will definitely get our guys excited and prepared to practice.
"This year's team could be a lot more equipped to make a [postseason] run, but we could lose more games because the schedule is so hard."
The situation facing Kansas isn't completely foreign to Self.
Kansas lost all five starters from its 2008 NCAA championship team but still won 27 games and the Big 12 title the following season. The accomplishment earned Self national coach of the year honors, although he's quick to note that that team was led by point guard Sherron Collins, one of the team's top performers from the previous season. The 2013-14 squad doesn't tout a player with that kind of experience.
In 2005-06, Kansas welcomed a recruiting class that featured McDonald's All-Americans Mario Chalmers, Julian Wright and Micah Downs along with Brandon Rush, a consensus top-15 recruit.
That team opened the season with a 3-4 record and lost two of its first three Big 12 games.
"Mario and Julian weren't even factors for us until January," Self said. "We played Cal in the Sprint Center and [walk-on] Stephen Vinson had to replace Mario for us to win the game. You knew those guys were good. It was just a matter of when the light would come on. Once it came on, they were great.
"I'm hopeful that this year's team is a little better early on than that team."
Pundits and prognosticators are banking it will be. Kansas is ranked among the top five or six in virtually every preseason poll -- a definite show of respect for a program whose leading returning scorer (Ellis) averaged 5.8 points per game last season.
"[The ranking] is probably too high to start the season," Self said. "Then again, does a preseason ranking reflect where you'll start the season, or where you'll finish? Because I do think that if things fall right and we stay healthy, we could be a team that's tough to deal with in the end, when it matters most."
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