University of Kansas

Kansas dealing from strength at guard

LAWRENCE — March is three days old, and the Kansas Jayhawks have everything in front of them. A third straight outright Big 12 regular-season title. A Big 12 Tournament title. A No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. A national championship.

The only question is, on any given day, which player will be leading the charge from the point guard spot?

On Wednesday, junior guard Tyshawn Taylor returned from his two-game suspension for violating team rules and sparked KU in the first half with seven points and two assists in 10 minutes. In the second half, sophomore guard Elijah Johnson played the final 10 minutes and paced the Jayhawks with tough defense.

Coach Bill Self said after Kansas' 64-51 win over Texas A&M that Johnson will start Saturday at Missouri, but he acknowledged Thursday that who starts won't have much influence over who finishes.

"It's going to be by committee," Self said. "That's how we need to do it. Certainly, it could be Elijah 20 minutes a game, could be 25, could be 10. It depends on the flow of the game and how other guys are doing."

The natural thing to assume is that Johnson and Taylor are in direct competition with one another. Self would like to think of it this way: There are three perimeter positions, and each player is in competition to be one of the best three. Of course, Self has also made it abundantly clear that seniors Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar aren't going anywhere. That leaves Johnson, Taylor and freshman guard Josh Selby — who all view themselves as point guards — to fight for the third guard spot and the opportunity to spell Reed and Morningstar.

Having a rotation in flux this late in the season is not something Self would have wanted when the season started, but he does not see it as a negative — and neither do his players.

"Right now, we're battling," Johnson said. "We're not battling with each other. We're battling to be the best team in the country. Right now, our guards are going at each other every day as hard as we ever have, and it's picking up the momentum of the team. It's a positive no matter what happens. Whether minutes go up, down or just get cut off, it's a positive."

Johnson was asked if the competition between him, Taylor and Selby will bring out the best in the group.

"Already has," he said.

Taylor spoke publicly Thursday for the first time since his suspension began on Feb. 21. He said his punishment was "definitely" fair.

"I did my time," Taylor said, "and now I'm back with my team, so I'm happy."

Taylor, who has admitted numerous times in the past that he cares about starting, said that he just wants to help the team win. He says Johnson's late-season emergence has served as motivation.

"To see him playing hard and stepping his game up is definitely going to be something that makes me want to work harder and do things different," Taylor said. "It's definitely a good thing. I think Elijah's been playing amazing. If he continues to play the way he plays, that just makes us that much deeper, that much better."

Self said Johnson is playing so well because he's begun to focus on defense first.

"He used to be like Velcro," Self said. "He'd stick to screens. It seems to me that he's really getting through things better now. He's getting over them or around them. He's focused in on just doing that. It's amazing to me, when you focus in on the right thing by making winning plays just to help your team win that possession, you perform better."

Self gets some help — Self welcomed two old friends to practice on Thursday — former KU coach Larry Brown and former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, who was an assistant under Self at Oklahoma State and Tulsa. Self said he had dinner Wednesday night and lunch Thursday with Brown, who hired Self as a graduate assistant at KU for the 1985-86 season.

"You can pick up stuff just talking to him about anything," Self said. "He's a very wise man. He and Billy will watch practice (Thursday). Hopefully they're gonna watch with the intent of helping me, without question. I like it when you have a different set of eyes to come in and evaluate the team."

Self said he did not invite Brown and Gillispie. Brown has some friends in the area that he wanted to visit, and Self said Gillispie has been angling to come to Lawrence all season.

Robinson progression slow — Self said that KU sophomore forward Thomas Robinson has not been as explosive as he was before Feb. 11, when he had surgery to repair a slightly-torn meniscus in his right knee. In three games since returning, Robinson has averaged 10.3 minutes, scoring 3.3 points and grabbing 5.3 rebounds.

"You can tell by looking at him, he's not jumping over people," Self said. "But he's fine. He just had surgery (three) weeks ago. He's doing remarkably well."

Robinson and KU women's basketball player Angel Goodrich were named Thursday as finalists for the 2011 V Foundation Comeback Award. This season, Robinson has had to play through losing his mother and both maternal grandparents in the span of a month and his recent knee injury. Goodrich, a redshirt sophomore, has torn her right and left ACLs since arriving in Lawrence but has stayed healthy this season, averaging six assists.