The Off-Season Report is a new series here on Busting Brackets, where we catch up with with a writer of a specific team and discuss what’s taken thus far in the off-season. We continue today with Joe Soriano of Through the Phog and discuss how Kansas exceeded expectations last season and where they go from here.
BustingBrackets.com: Most thought the Jayhawks would have a down year last season. That didn’t happen and instead, they were 40 minutes away from a national title. Did you think the team would be that good entering the season?
Joe Soriano: To be honest, I thought the Jayhawks were a Sweet 16 team at best coming into the 2011-2012 season. They had talent with Tyshawn Taylor and Trevor Releford, and Thomas Robinson was impressive enough the previous season in less minutes, but it seemed like too daunting of a task to replace six of the team’s top eight scorers. And, of course, nobody could foresee Robinson breaking out and becoming the second best player in college basketball. There’s also the fact that three recruits were deemed ineligible to play for the Jayhawks, including Braeden Anderson who can’t even play in the Big 12 conference. The other two recruits, Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor, were four-star and three-star recruits respectively, and McLemore looked like someone who could have been an impact freshman in 2011.
By the way, the Jayhawks might have pulled it off if the second-half was elongated to allow another big comeback. So, they might have been ten or fifteen minutes away from one.
BB: Would it be safe to say that it was the best coaching job Bill Self has done at Kansas?
JS: Yeah, I would agree with that, even though his 2008 campaign was also a great coaching year for Self. That year, the Jayhawks lost their entire starting line-up and two others to the NBA Draft- including Mario Chalmers. Coming off of a National Championship game, Kansas returned just two significant players from the previous season. However, Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins led the team to 25 wins, a Big 12 title, and a Sweet 16 appearance.
However, Bill Self, who is arguably the best coach in basketball right now, really outdid himself this year. The team lost Brady Morningstar, the Morris twins, Tyrel Reed, Josh Selby, and Mario Little to the NBA Draft. Four of those guys were impact players, and KU lost another potential starter in incoming recruit Ben McLemore.
That didn’t stop Self and the Jayhawks, because they made it to the National Championship without six of their best players the previous year. Four of them were starter; that’s insane. So yes, this was definitely Self’s best year, and it isn’t like his Jayhawks career is bereft of some top coaching. The development of role players into stars- Robinson- is a testament to his coaching ability. To take a rebuilding team that returned just two players of note and added one transfer (Kevin Young) to a National Championship is incredible. Kansas had some great players to lead the way, but it was Self who developed those guys and helped them come together.
BB: Speaking of coaching, long-time assistant Danny Manning has left for Tulsa, with Norm Roberts replacing him. What do you think about the addition of Roberts?
JS: Ah, I see you were smart enough not to ask me to gush about Danny Manning. Norm Roberts is a great recruiter, and he is one of the better assistants in college basketball. He works very well with Bill Self, and that was apparent when he was Self’s main recruiter at St. John’s. But when Roberts took over as the coach of the Red Storm, he couldn’t get anything going and was fired after an early NIT exit. I like the addition of Roberts, and he helps the Jayhawks recruiting-wise and gives them “staff chemistry”. He worked under Billy Donovan last year, and it was a solid hire. I’ll miss Manning, but it’s great that he received the opportunity to follow his dream and become the head coach for Tulsa.
BB: Replacing Thomas Robinson will be no easy task. Talk a little about just how much he meant to the Kansas program.
JS: Oh man, it’s just too difficult to explain, and it’s nearly impossible to explain what Robinson means. I mean, No. 0 is a guy who you understand after following his story, and it’s tough to put words to describe him. He was our emotional leader last season, and everything flowed through him. This guy has the talent to put up as many points as he felt like each night, but he put the team first and focused on defense and rebounding. Robinson was one of the best rebounders and interior defenders in the country last season, and he was also a great, efficient offensive player.
Before a game against Texas, there was a moment of silence for Robinson, because the most tragic series of events occured in the previous three weeks. What happened is unimaginable, and it speaks to his character that he pulled himself through this and was even on the court during this game. In that span of three weeks, Thomas Robinson lost his mother, grandfather, and grandmother. I’m going to let that sink in, because there’s no point in trying to put more words to it.
It was truly a joy to watch Robinson develop from a promising bench player who averaged 8-6 as a sophomore, to one of the best players in college basketball and a future top-five pick. I hope he has a successful NBA career, and I’m sure he will. His character, work ethic, and ability are all at an elite level, and whoever has the No. 2 pick should take him if they have a need at PF. I’m glad he forewent his senior season, because he had nothing left to prove here; it’s time for him to be a star in the NBA and make Jayhawks fans proud.
BB: In turning our attention to next season, let’s discuss recruiting. Perry Ellis and Andrew White lead this impressive 2012 class. What type of impact are they and the rest of the class expected to have next year?
JS: Here is an article I wrote about Andrew White when he signed, and I think this talks about my feelings on White overall (http://throughthephog.com/2012/04/13/andrew-white-signs-with-kansas-jayhawks/). He is one of the top 15 small forwards in the nation, a top 50 recruit, and a versatile, athletic wing player. White has the ability to play some solid minutes off the bench for the Jayhawks, and he should be a solid contributor for KU as a freshman.
Perry Ellis headlines this top 15 recruiting class and is a terrific, five-star power forward. He’s one of the best 25 recruits in the nation, and I love his strength. Ellis is a dominant presence in the paint, and he can run the floor to boot. He’s got an arsenal of moves on the low post that make him even more dangerous, and his rebounding is also noteworthy. Perry Ellis is the kind of talent who you build a recruiting class around, and I think he ends up being a key contributor on this team; he’s going to start.
The Jayhawks also picked up a top 100 SG in Anrio Adams, but his involvement depends on his test scores. KU also brought in a top 150 recruit in Zach Peters, who is a good defensive player and will grow into a defensive stopper role off the bench in a year. Landen Lucas is a top 25 power forward and rounds out this great recruiting class, and all these players fit the mold of high-energy, talented players who fit this team well. I’m excited to see these guys play in the coming years, especially Perry Ellis.
BB: You knew we’d get here, but let’s talk about Xavier transfer Mark Lyons. Do you think he joins the Jayhawks?
JS: To be honest, I think Mark Lyons ends up going to the Arizona Wildcats. It’s because they have the bigger need for a shooting guard who thinks he’s a point guard, and that’s not a knock on Lyons. He will end up being a solid PG, but he isn’t the best passer around and uses up too many possessions to be the combo guard who transitions to point guard. He has the ability to be a quality point guard, but he’s a great shooting guard and is a very good pure scorer.
The Jayhawks already have a good point guard for next year in Elijah Johnson. so we don’t need Lyons. He is a talented player, but he would complicate things and cause morale issues on the team. If he doesn’t end up being the point guard, then he is either A) Not going to come here or B) Not going to be happy. Johnson is the better point guard than Lyons, but Lyons is the better player due to his proficiency as a 2.
In the end, Lyons either ends up starring for Arizona or being a key player for the Kentucky Wildcats next season. To me, KU is the third wheel. We also have Travis Releford at shooting guard, so there isn’t much of a fit there. If the Jayhawks do get Lyons and relegate Johnson to the bench, then, unless if Johnson embraces a bench role, there will be problems. I don’t think Bill Self wants to risk that, and the only way Lyons goes to KU is if these three things happen. 1. He really likes Kansas and/or Self (but mainly Kansas) 2. He’s fine with being a combo guard and playing less minutes, which falls into No. 1 3. Johnson doesn’t mind playing less minutes.
BB: It’s still early, but any predictions for next season? How good can this team be?
JS: The Jayhawks are at least a top ten team, and they are most likely a top five team. I have them at fourth behind Indiana, Kentucky, and Lousiville (in that order). Kansas brought in a great recruiting class, and we’ve learned that Bill Self can do pretty much anything. Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford will form a great backcourt, and Jeff Withey is one of the best bigs in the nation (especially on defense; he blocks everything). I am a little hesitant on calling them a top three team, but there isn’t much separating the top teams in the country early on. This team has the potential to get to the National Championship again, and the floor of this team is merely a Sweet 16 performance. I see these guys getting to the Elite Eight, and they have the ability to make it to the Final Four. Nobody should underestimate this team with Withey at center, star freshman Perry Ellis at power forward, and Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson in the backcourt.