Elijah Johnson is cradling a basketball and tucking it under the crook of his elbow. He’s been holding it for more than 20 minutes now, clutching it tight while the Kansas basketball team gathers inside Allen Fieldhouse for its team picture on Thursday afternoon. Moments later, he still has it as he takes a seat just off the baseline.
In many ways, it makes sense. Johnson is now the point guard for a Kansas program that played for the NCAA title last spring. He is also a senior, perhaps the most experienced player in a program that, just hours earlier, had been picked to win the Big 12 title once again. If you’re counting, another Big 12 title for Kansas would mean nine straight pieces of Big 12 crystal inside Allen Fieldhouse. And to Johnson, this is where the ball comes into play. Tyshawn Taylor is gone now. So is Thomas Robinson. In the figurative and literal sense, it’s time for Johnson to seize control.
“Hand the keys over,” Johnson says. “I appreciate it, I’ll drive. I definitely will drive. But it’s not just about me.”
In a few minutes on Thursday, Johnson sorted through two of the biggest questions looming over the Jayhawks’ upcoming basketball season, which kicks off Friday night at “Late Night in The Phog.” How will Kansas make up for the loss of Taylor and Robinson? And how will the Jayhawks’ seven-man freshman class develop?
This Kansas team is a blend of steady veterans and precocious young talent. And there’s not much in-between.
So Johnson has a simple answer for those who wonder how Kansas will be able to make up for the ample production provided by Taylor and Robinson last season. He points out that KU lost three scholarship seniors and added seven freshman.
“Math,” Johnson says.
It won’t be that easy, of course. But the process will likely begin with Johnson and senior center Jeff Withey. With Taylor gone, Johnson is now the Jayhawks’ primary ballhandler and floor leader. It’s a role he played all during high school, he says, and it’s a position he missed when he mostly played off the ball during his first three years at Kansas.
“Honestly, yes, I have,” says Johnson, who averaged 10.2 points last season. “I think that setting the pace and being a person who can bring air into the room, just giving life, I think that’s the funnest part of basketball.”
Just as Taylor had Robinson last season, Johnson will have his own inside wingman in Withey, a preseason All-Big 12 player who will have a chance to become KU’s career blocks leader this season.
Self says the Jayhawks could be more balanced this season after leaning on Taylor and Robinson so much last season. But if he’s honest, he’d really like to see a few players emerge to average 14 or 15 points.
That could include Withey, who averaged nine points per game last season. For Self and Withey, a few more buckets per game seems like a reasonable improvement.
“I want him to be an All-American type guy,” Self says. “I don’t think that’s a big reach. I think he’s the best defensive big guy in the country.”
Withey concedes that he pondered jumping to the NBA after last season. But he didn’t get too far into the process. One reason: He felt like there was some unfinished business in Lawrence
“In the end of it,” Withey says, “I wanted to come back and win a national championship.”
Likewise, Johnson talks about similar goals in his last go-round at KU. These days, when Johnson mentions last season, he says he hardly realized how good Kansas had been until the season was gone. Now the journey is about to begin again. Self says he’s counting on Johnson to help mold the freshman class. It’s part of his new role. Elijah Johnson: senior leader. The guard with the season in the palm of his hands.
“I get to set the speed,” Johnson says. “Last year, we played at Tyshawn’s speed. Whatever that had to be. Sometimes he was down the court before everybody. But just knowing that I’m setting the speed. I like that the most.”
Notes — It’s the 11th time KU has been picked to win the league in its 17-year existence. The Jayhawks, who have won the last eight Big 12 titles and 12 overall, won the league 8 of 10 times they were the preseason favorite.
Kansas State was picked to finish fifth in Bruce Weber’s first season. Baylor was second and got KU coach Bill Self’s vote. Oklahoma State was third, Texas fourth. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Texas Tech and TCU followed K-State.