For years, Bill Self has used a simple phrase to describe the pressures of coaching at a tradition-rich program. He calls it “Kansas math” — the idea that no matter how many stars leave KU early, or how many seniors exit, Kansas fans will generally expect their team to be even better the following year.
That’s a pretty good starting point when looking at this year’s Kansas team. One year after a joyous — and somewhat surprising — trip to the NCAA championship game, the Jayhawks move on without consensus All-America forward Thomas Robinson and All-Big 12 point guard Tyshawn Taylor.
The impact and talent of Robinson and Taylor can’t be overstated. After two years under the radar, Robinson burst onto the scene like a comet, putting together one of the best individual seasons in KU history. Taylor, meanwhile, was among the best playmaking guards in the country.
But one year later, there’s a growing sentiment that KU might be better this year. The Jayhawks return three starters — guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, and center Jeff Withey — and senior forward Kevin Young also played important minutes off the bench last year. And Self adds to the fold one of his deepest freshman classes in memory, a mix of strong recruiting and circumstance.
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Redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, a 6-foot-5 guard, and Jamari Traylor, a 6-foot-8 power forward, were forced to sit out last year after being deemed as partial qualifiers. And Wichita native Perry Ellis, a McDonald’s All-America forward, is the most high-profile recruit in a group of five new freshmen.
McLemore, an athletic wing who had drawn comparisons to former KU star Brandon Rush, will start along side Johnson and Releford in the backcourt, while Young, Ellis and Traylor will fight for minutes at power forward. (Freshmen Landen Lucas and Zach Peters, who is battling a shoulder injury, could also be in the mix.)
There are a couple of questions marks that could slow this KU team’s ascent. Can Elijah Johnson be the lead guard on a top-10 team? (Not to mention, who else will provide ballhandling support in the backcourt?) Finally, how will KU make up for Robinson and Taylor’s scoring?
In a best-case scenario, McLemore turns into an All-Big 12 player and Ellis is ready to start and contribute right away. In the worst case, Kansas gets a rude awakening against Michigan State on Nov. 13 and has to spend most of November and December waiting for the freshmen to get up to speed.
But even in that scenario, the Jayhawks have the talent — and home-court advantage — to win the Big 12. The bigger question: What’s their ceiling?
Earlier this fall, Johnson was asked how KU would replace Robinson and Taylor. He answered by mentioning that KU had lost three contributors, including Conner Teahan, and gained seven freshmen. So…
“Math,” Johnson said.