How good were the Kansas Jayhawks last season? No, seriously. How good were they? On one hand, they won 33 games, running away with the Big 12 regular season and tournament championships. On the other hand, they rarely looked like the No. 1 team in the country.
Of course, KU was good. Really good. But still, it seemed like there was something missing. Senior leaders and All-America candidates Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich didn't play to that elite level most nights, and freshman guard Xavier Henry was not the 18-point-a-night player he showed himself to be in the season's first month.
The Jayhawks played like a team that was afraid to fail in the NCAA Tournament second round, and their season ended in stunning fashion to Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley Conference. Yes, something was missing.
This season, it will be clear what is missing — Collins, Aldrich and Henry. This fact of life, for the reasons mentioned above, does not necessarily have to be a negative. And hey, as KU coach Bill Self has already stated, it can't be a negative. Why? Because this is Kansas, and the arithmetic practiced at Allen Fieldhouse is something altogether different than it is anywhere but maybe Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke.
For Self, the loss of Collins, Aldrich and Henry means a chance to plug in Josh Selby, Markieff Morris and (maybe) Travis Releford. It means that Self can dream of having a team that can pressure outward defensively with more athleticism and raw speed than last year's team. The vision for this group of players is a team that can defend in the ferocious way that the 2008 national championship team could with a starting lineup of Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Darnell Jackson and Darrell Arthur.
The 2008 team will always be the standard, and last year's team simply never got there. Offensively, the ball stuck too often in the hands of Collins. The Jayhawks wanted to play through Aldrich but too often couldn't. This year's team, with a young point guard in Selby who is eager to make friends and an emerging star in forward Marcus Morris who wants to be unselfish, KU could be very tough to guard for opponents.
As the Jayhawks wait for Selby to be cleared by the NCAA, they will have the luxury of a nonconference schedule that should challenge them but be far from brutal. Games against name programs Arizona, UCLA, Memphis, Southern California, California and Michigan are all winnable. With or without Selby, expect KU to lose a few and win a few.
In Big 12 play, with Selby theoretically on the court, the expectation should be a seventh straight league title.
In other words, this will be another good season. Will it be great? Self will be the first to say that a Final Four trip is the only way to make a season special. Usually, a coach's best teams mirror his own personality, and there's plenty of reason to believe that the 2010-11 Jayhawks will have the tools to play the way Self would prefer: selfless, tenacious and tough.