ARLINGTON, Texas — In the sudden aftermath of more NCAA Tournament heartache, Kansas coach Bill Self offered an honest assessment of his team’s late-game collapse against No. 4 seed Michigan.
“The last three minutes, we didn’t do a lot of things right,” Self said, “which will be something we’ll look back on and regret for a long, long time.”
The pain and sorrow from Friday’s 87-85 overtime loss at Cowboys Stadium may very well linger for some time, but Self and the Jayhawks also face another uncertain reality as they attempt to move forward.
After a four-year stretch that included another Final Four, three No. 1 seeds, and more March agony, Self faces one of the most daunting roster overhauls of his Kansas tenure.
Self must replace all five starters for the first time since after KU won the NCAA title in 2008. And, if freshman guard Ben McLemore leaves early for the NBA, Self will lose his top five leading scorers for the first time.
The Jayhawks’ four-man senior class of Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Kevin Young helped Kansas amass a 131-19 record in the past four years. But all four are now gone. And McLemore, who broke the Jayhawks’ freshman scoring mark while averaging 15.9 points, could follow them out the door as well.
McLemore, projected as a top-five pick in this summer’s NBA Draft, said on Friday that he hadn’t given much thought to his future. But KU coach Bill Self said he would, at the least, advise McLemore to explore his professional options.
“He needs to explore,” Self said. “He needs to look into doing what would be potentially great for his family, and if it’s the right time, he needs to go.
“But if it’s not, he should stay. But we’ll discuss it.”
Self, of course, has faced similar reloading jobs before. When the Jayhawks won the national championship in 2008, they would soon lose five seniors and three early entries into the NBA Draft. In 2010, KU lost Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and one-and-done Xavier Henry. And in 2011, after a 35-3 record, the Jayhawks lost first-round picks Marcus and Markieff Morris — and still advanced to the NCAA title game the following year.
But Self has generally had a standout in the wings, waiting to pick up the slack. Collins was there in 2009. The Morris twins remained in 2011. And Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor were ready to carry the load in 2012. Who will step up next?
Start with freshman forward Perry Ellis, who emerged as a potential star in the season’s final weeks after a season of rookie growing pains. He averaged 5.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 13.6 minutes for the season. But his scoring increased to 10.7 points per game in Kansas’ final seven games.
Sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe also took a step in his second year on campus, averaging 5.5 points and 3.1 assists. If nothing else, he’ll take on an increased leadership role next season. Barring any roster additions, Tharpe will be the only junior or senior on the roster that arrived as a scholarship player. (Soon-to-be senior walk-ons Justin Wesley and Niko Roberts will also return.)
“It’s something I’ll be able to handle,” Tharpe said after the loss on Friday. “Just make sure I come in next year to be able to work and be the leader for the team.”
In short: If the past two KU squads felt like minor rebuilding projects, the Jayhawks’ chances for a 10th straight Big 12 title in 2013-14 will be dependent on a full-fledged youth movement.
The Jayhawks will need continued development from freshman guards Rio Adams and Andrew White III, two players that struggled to adapt to the speed of the college game, and more offensive production from redshirt freshman Jamari Traylor, who proved himself to be a capable energy guy in his first season. The Jayhawks will also gain another front-court body in Landen Lucas, a 6-foot-8 forward who redshirted this past season.
Then there are the freshmen.
Earlier this month, Self missed out on top recruiting target Julius Randle, a power forward who opted for Kentucky. But he’s still pieced together one of his better recruiting classes in recent memory.
For now, it’s a five-man group that includes four players rated in the Rivals.com Top 150 rankings. Wayne Selden, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from the Tilton School in New Hampshire, is a McDonald’s All-American and the 26th-ranked player in the 2013 class. He’ll be joined by Brannen Greene (No. 25), a 6-foot-7 swingman from Tifton, Ga., and Conner Frankamp (No. 31), a 6-foot scoring machine from Wichita North. The Jayhawks will also add length in the front-court in Joel Embiid (No. 37), a 7-footer from Cameroon who played his high school ball in Gainesville, Fla. The fifth member of the class is Frank Mason, a 5-foot-11 point guard who played this past season at Massanutten (Va.) Military Academy.
If McLemore leaves, the Jayhawks will have two more open scholarships. The Jayhawks are still in the hunt for swingman Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall player in the 2013 class, and they possess the flexibility to add another late signee or transfer.
For the past four seasons, the Jayhawks have won 30 games (just the second Division 1 program to accomplish that feat) and gained a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Before this season, when Self addressed the crowd at the Jayhawks’ annual Late Night in the Phog, he came with a simple, canned line: “Rosters change, but expectations don’t.”
With four seniors gone, that mantra will undergo a heavy stress test next season.