I've seen two Final Fours in my time, the back to back 2002 and 2003 teams led by Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. The '03 team, a seven-man team, came up just short of a national title, thanks mostly to the incomperable Carmelo Anthony and classic KU free throw shooting (12-30). Just after that game, Roy was off to Chapel Hill and Bill Self took over.
Self may never the kind of talent he has had last year and again this year. He has started to get the reputation as the guy who gets close to the Final Four, but can't take his team over the hump. Self has taken three different schools to the Elite Eight, twice with KU, but until he takes that next step, the questions will still remain. That brings us to this year.
The 2007-08 Kansas Jayhawks are once again loaded with talent. You've got sizer in the frontcourt, speed and shooting in the backcourt, and a ton of depth. With five scholorship Seniors, plus anywhere between two and four other who could go pro after this year, it's now or never for Self. Take a walk with me through the roster and you'll see what i'm talking about. We'll go class by class:
Seniors - PG Russell Robinson, C Sasha Kaun, PF Darnell Jackson, G/F Rodrick Stewart, SG Jeremy Case, F Brad Witherspoon (walk-on)
Lets start with the heart and soul of the 'Hawks, Robinson. RussRob has improved about as much as any player I've seen over a four year career. He came in as a highly touted Freshman, who withered under pressure early on and finished on the end of the bench in Bill Self's doghouse. At a game against Baylor, he was asked to go in the game during a blowout and he refused. Fast forward to his senior season, and its nothing but bouquets from the coaching staff and his teammates. His defense is superior and his decision making is rock-solid. His shooting has improved dramatically. Said RR, “I just want to leave Kansas with a ring,” he said, “so they’ll look back, and everybody will remember our senior class.”
Jackson is one of my alltime favorite KU players. Nobody plays with more heart and energy and nobody wants it more. DJ stepped it up big time late last season and took over a leadership role on a team with no Seniors. He is a big banger on the offensive glass and has a nice touch from 12 feet. While his stats aren't sexy (he averaged 5.5 PPG and 5.1 RPG last year), his contributions to the team are pivitol. “It’s always been the same role for me,” Jackson said. “I’m going to play hard for my teammates, rebound, try to get loose balls. That’s my role.”
Kaun, the 7-foot Russian, has had an up and down career. One of the biggest bodies in the country, Kaun is a solid defender and rebounder, but often gets caught in foul trouble. His numbers dropped in minutes played, points, and rebounds last year, and his poor free throw shooting was a liability in close games (remember the brilliant Hack-a-Kaun strategy Texas A&M used in thier win in Lawrence?). It is of the utmost importance that he stays within himself and concentrates on rebounding and defense,as his offense post moves leave a lot to be desired. If he does that, he is a very useful big man.
Another guy I am high on is Rod Stewart. A guy who was a former McDonald's AA and came to Lawrence after a year and a half at USC, Stewart has been an after-thought for most of his career. At the end of last year, Self started to trust Rod as a guy who can come in, play solid defense, rebound, and make no mistakes. With Brandon Rush out with a knee injury, Stewart has stepped up and taken some of his minutes. “Rod works hard, he deserves the chance to play, and I think he’s going to get that opportunity early,” Self said. “Hopefully good things will happen so he can get his confidence.”
Case has been in the program five years and other than coming in during blowouts and chucking up threes, he hasn't contrinuted much. The two interesting facts about Case is his father played with Self at Oklahoma State and he is the last remaining tie to the Roy Williams era, he was recruited by and signed to play for him.
Juniors - SF Brandon Rush, G Mario Chalmers, C Matt Kleinmann (walk-on), G Brennan Bechard (walk-on)
The Jayhawks start the season without the All-American Rush. The multi-talented Wing probably won't be full speed all year, so we should see plenty of Rush's three-point shot and pull-up J. Last year, he took the challenge and became KU's best on-ball defender. His all-around ability is perfect for the college game. A healthy Rush will be the key for a Jayhawk run to the National Title. The one issue is he is a very reluctant star. Self has disciplined him for being too passive on several occasions. “It’s just me being a very unselfish player and making everybody happy,” Rush says. “I don’t like people being mad at me. I’ve always been like that. It’s something I’m working on, but it hasn’t improved that much.” Make no mistake, when healthy he is the best player on the team.
While Rush doesn't love the spotlight, Chalmers luckily does. Whenever the Jayhawks needed a big shot last year, it was Mario who wanted the ball. The combo-Guard out of Alaska is another of KU's ball-hawking defenders who loves to take chances on D and they usually pay off. He was amongst the nations leaders in steals and shoots the deep ball at a 40% clip. Mario works best off the ball, and that is why he is such a perfect fit in the KU backcourt. Robinson is more of a true point guard and Sophomore Sherron Collins has slick handles and burns up the floor with Chalmers. Don't be surprised if this is the last year you see Mario in Crimson and Blue.
Sophomores - PG Sherron Collins, PF Darrell Arthur, G Brady Morningstar (red-shirting)
The key to the season is the Sophomore class. Maybe the most important player on this year's squad is Arthur. The man they call "Shady" had a coming out party last November as he dominated Florida lottery picks Joakim Noah and Al Horford. He scored 19 points in 16 minutes and made several key free throws at the end of the game. The problem was that was the best we saw of Shady all year. He went quiet most of the year and became more of a role player during the conference season. If KU is going to win it all, the Shady we saw against the Gators must appear all season, especially for a player with NBA aspirations. Said Self: "he’s a guy who has enough moves, enough athletic ability that he can score 20 any night, but I don’t know if he thinks that way. I don’t know if he thinks, ‘How can I score every possession?" Lets hope Self is wrong.
As important as Arthur is, Collins is the X-factor. After a slow start, Sherron really came on, pushing the tempo with his lightning quick handles and his clutch three-point shot. With Rush out for the first month or so, its Collins who may become the lead scoring Guard. He showed he was not afraid last year, especially in big games. He was money in Big 12 play, scoring 18 on Texas A&M All-American Acie Law and 23 in a win against the hated Missouri Tigers. Sherron is the straw that stirs the Jayhawk drink. His quickness was sapped in the NCAA tournament last year because of a knee injury, but he is fully recovered and ready to go.
Freshman - C Cole Aldrich, G Tyrel Reed, G Chase Buford (walk-on), G Conner Teahen (walk-on)
Aldrich comes in with the McDonald's All-American pedigree from the great state of Minnesota. Thought to be a tad on the overhyped side going into his Senior year, Aldrich stepped his game up big time and played to his considerable hype. The early reports out of Lawrence are that he is more ready to play right away than anticipated. He will step right into the vacant frontcourt spot opened when Julian Wright went pro, though his game is nothing like Wright's. Aldrich is a pure Center, but can step out and hit the mid-range jumper. This year, expect Cole to be more of a role player, getting 15 or so minutes a night. Next year, he will most likely become the centerpiece.
With so many experienced guards on the roster, it will probably be tough for Reed to see a lot of quality minutes, but the Kansas City product has impressed so far in practices and the exhibition games, showing a good court sense and a better outside shot, his calling card. He doesn't seem ready on the defensive end yet, but the good news is there is no hurry for Reed to be ready with Robinson, Chalmers, Collins, Stewart, and Case.
Outlook - I've put the Jayhawks at #5 in my preseason rankings. This team has all the makings of a national champion. Depth, experience, guards who can shoot and defend (Chalmers, Collins, Rush), a budding star post man (Arthur), and rugged role players (Jackson, Robinson, Stewart). They will get up and down the floor on offense and swarm opposing guards on defense. The only things that can stop them are injuries and a team forcing a halfcourt style on them, the way UCLA did in last year's West regional final. Don't forget about the Bill Self factor. He has spent his entire coaching career beating on the door, but this year, he plans on kicking it in.