KU’s new starters aren’t all that new

03/06/2012 5:00 AM

08/05/2014 6:21 PM

Kansas fans have likened these Jayhawks to specific earlier editions. In 2006 and 2009 the team essentially turned over starting lineups.

This one did, too, with only Tyshawn Taylor back from last year's squad.

But there's a difference, a significant one that may bode well for the third-ranked Jayhawks in the postseason.

This KU team is old by power program standards. Taylor is a senior and the four other starters, the newbies, are juniors.

Thomas Robinson, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey had a combined 16 career starts, with Johnson owning half of them.

“It easier to become a starter if you've been here a while,” Releford said. “You know what Coach (Bill) Self wants out of you, in the position you play. You play your role, you do that well and you should have nothing to worry about.”

That's been the trick, and it's something new for Kansas, at least to this extent: Several players who waited their turn to become starters.

They honed their games in reserve roles and in practice, measuring up against future NBA talent. Releford, the defender who usually guards the opponents' top perimeter player; Withey the shot blocker who has found an offensive game; Johnson, the off-guard who leads the team in three-point attempts.

As a productive sixth-man last year, Robinson is a bit different. Big things were expected, and he's delivered a conference player of the year season.

The others were all top high school prospects, five- and four-star recruits in the rivals.com rankings. But they had to wait their turn.

Then they had to step up.

“The pressure of having a role where your performance dictates whether we win or not has a different feel to it,” Self said.

They've all stepped up. Releford and Withey have joined Robinson and Taylor as Big 12 players of the week. Johnson had an 18-point half at Texas A&M.

Top reserve Conner Teahan, a fifth-year senior who has never started, played 37 minutes and scored 12 points in the biggest game of the season, the victory over Missouri at Allen Fieldhouse two weeks ago.

The makeup differs from the previous teams.

In 2006, KU's top five scorers were first- and second-year players, led by freshman Brandon Rush.

In 2009, two freshmen — Marcus Morris and Taylor — were part of the few starting five that replaced the national title team.

Over the past four years, Kansas' most successful postseason teams — the 2008 title team and last year's squad that advanced to the Elite Eight — had the most veteran regulars.

The Rush-led team won the Big 12 Tournament but lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Bradley.

The Morris/Taylor team lost in the opening Big 12 game to Baylor and advanced to the Sweet 16 where if fell to Michigan State.

Despite the new faces in the lineup, expectations didn't change. KU started the year as the Big 12 favorite and ranked 13th in the preseason polls. Not the top five where the Jayhawks had resided in nearly every poll for each of the past two seasons, but even those who hadn't started believed there wouldn't be much of a drop off this season.

“People didn't think we'd be ranked third in the nation, but we thought we were this good,” Withey said. “Everybody in that locker room knew we had talent.”

It's just that nobody had seen those players as starters. Now they have, and Withey was right. The players are talented, and they finally got a chance to show it.

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