LAWRENCE — In Bill Self’s nine years at Kansas, the Jayhawks have generally been a program that’s relied on a consistent eight- or nine-man rotation. Roles are usually set, minutes meted out in steady doses.
So when Self answered a question about his team’s depth last month at Big 12 media day at the Sprint Center, it immediately generated a little buzz.
“This year I think we can go 10 or 11 deep,” Self said. “We’re definitely a deeper team.”
But, wait. Later in the day, Self needed to clarify. The Jayhawks may have the guys to go 10 or 11 deep. But they won’t.
“No,” Self said. “We’re gonna play nine. We’ll start the season out playing nine, and then it will go to eight, and then who knows where it will go after that.”
Kansas’ rotation crunch makes for some intriguing arithmetic. The Jayhawks return four seniors, including three starters off last year’s Final Four squad. They’ve added seven scholarship freshmen. And sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe is the only scholarship player in the middle.
In short, it means a period of roster sorting during the season’s opening weeks, a process that continues with tonight’s 7 p.m. exhibition contest against Washburn, the Jayhawks’ final game before their season opener against Southeast Missouri on Friday.
“Last year, we had a happy locker room,” Self said. “Because everybody knew exactly what their role was.”
This year, there are minutes to be had and position battles to watch. For now, four of Kansas’ starting spots appear to be secure. Senior guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford and center Jeff Withey all played major roles last year. And redshirt freshman guard Ben McLemore will likely start alongside Johnson and Releford.
Redshirt freshman forward Jamari Traylor started in the Jayhawks’ exhibition opener against Emporia State, but senior forward Kevin Young, who is out one more week with a broken hand, and freshman Perry Ellis are certain to figure into the rotation.
That leaves some reserve minutes in the backcourt, where Self will likely need another ballhandler capable of running the offense and guarding opposing point guards. Tharpe could position himself as that guy with a strong November. In KU’s exhibition opener, he finished with eight points and four assists while making both his three-point attempts.
“Naadir’s smart.” Self said. “He understands what we’re trying to do. He doesn’t always do it. But he certainly understands. And so I think he’s gonna have a good year.
“One thing about Naadir, what he does better than anything, and we didn’t see it last year, statistically — he can shoot the ball. And so he’s really a small (two guard), as much as anything, but he’s working hard on trying to be a good backup to Elijah.”
While Tharpe brings an element of knowledge after spending last season on the bench, freshman guard Rio Adams could be a wildcard, a raw athlete with the skill-set to battle for playing time. Adams, a Seattle native, drew high marks from Self for his on-the-ball defense after playing 10 minutes against Emporia State.
“I just feel like, for me to be on the court,” Adams said. “I gotta give more effort on defense. And I’m gonna keep trying to do that the whole year.”
With Kansas’ matchup with Michigan State in the Champions Classic looming next Tuesday in Atlanta, it seems likely that Self would lean more toward experience in the opening weeks. But with a roster packed with newcomers, the rotation could takes weeks, at least, to fully solidify.
“They’ll be some guys disappointed this year,” Self said, “But that also brings out competition, which is good.”