October 30, 2012; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Ben McLemore (23) celebrates after dunking the ball in the second half of the game against the Emporia State Hornets at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks won 88-54. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Kansas Jayhawks Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

Kansas Jayhawks

Last Season 32-7 (16-2 Big 12)
Lost to Baylor in Big 12 semifinals
Lost to Kentucky in NCAA tournament championship game
Key Returning Players: Elijah Johnson, G
Jeff Withey, C
Travis Releford, G
Kevin Young, F
Justin Wesley, F
Key Additions: Perry Ellis, F (Wichita Heights HS)
Ben McLemore, G (Redshirt Freshman)
Andrew White, F (The Miller School)
Landen Lucas, F (Westview HS)
Anrio Adams, G (Rainier Beach HS)
Zach Peters, F (Prestonwood Christian Academy)
Key Losses: Thomas Robinson, F (Declared early for NBA draft)
Tyshawn Taylor, G
Conner Teahan, G
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 13 vs. Michigan State (Champions Classic, Atlanta)
Nov. 19 vs. Washington State (CBE Classic, Kansas City
Nov. 20 vs. Texas A&M or Saint Louis (CBE Classic)
Dec. 8 vs. Colorado
Dec. 18 vs. Richmond
Dec. 22 @ Ohio State
Jan. 6 vs. Temple
Top Conference Games: Jan. 14 vs. Baylor
Jan. 19 @ Texas
Jan. 22 @ Kansas State
Feb. 2 vs. Oklahoma State
Feb. 11 vs. Kansas State
Feb. 16 vs. Texas
Feb. 20 @ Oklahoma State
Mar. 9 @ Baylor
Breakout Player: Perry Ellis. A breakout season from Jeff Withey should catch few by surprise. After a strong second half to his junior season and with an expanded role forthcoming, the senior center is poised to become one of college basketball’s best pivots. But his future frontcourt mate, though just a freshman, could end up stealing the show in Lawrence. Perry Ellis spent all of last season as the best high school basketball player in Kansas. He’ll spend all of this season as the best collegian in his hometown state. No, Ellis won’t erase memories of Thomas Robinson. He doesn’t come with a twin like Marcus or Markieff Morris. But the standout freshman is the next great power forward at a program that has become the headquarters for churning out NBA-ready talent at his position. Ellis is skilled enough to dominate from the moment the Jayhawks season tips off.  A versatile and athletic forward who loves to run the floor, he is an elite-level scorer with a top-flight mid-range game. Ellis is the best face-up 4 in his recruiting class, able to score off the dribble, via the pull-up J and even with his back to the basket. The Jayhawks will miss plenty about T-Rob—his rebounding prowess, strength, toughness, defensive presence and thunderous dunks—but his scoring output can roughly be replicated if Ellis lives up to the billing.
X-Factor: Point guard play. Kansas will need offensive help in the worst way, needing to replace more than half (53.8-percent) of the team’s scoring output from last season. Steady point guard play is the simplest shortcut. Between Ellis’s production (as outlined above), the broadened role for Kevin Young and added contributions from some of Kansas’ other touted freshmen forwards—notably, Landen Lucas and Andrew White—the Jayhawks should be able to tentatively reproduce T-Rob’s scoring. Replacing Tyshawn Taylor’s production, on the other hand, is far more daunting, especially without a sure-fire point guard ready to fill his spot. A polarizing figure throughout his up-and-down four-year career, the maligned Taylor ultimately got the job done, spearheading the Jayhawks attack with timely dimes and game-changing buckets. Say what you will about his swollen turnover rate—he was a playmaker at his core, both the good kind and bad—but Taylor was an indispensable piece on Bill Self’s team. Can Elijah Johnson simulate Taylor’s role on this year’s squad? He’ll have to for the Jayhawks to max out the talent on this team. But whether he can is another issue. For one, Johnson is not a natural point guard. Though he can drop an occasional dime, complete a swing pass and make the right read in the open floor, Johnson is better suited playing off-ball. What’s more, he can’t get to the line to save his life; Johnson has attempted just 76 free throws over a three-year college career spanning 1900 minutes (that’s an average of one free throw attempt per 25 minutes). For the Jayhawks to truly be Final Four caliber, Elijah Johnson will have to be something other than the player he’s been during his first three seasons in Lawrence. While perfectly viable as a hybrid guard deferring to a true point, the freshman through junior Johnson is not a sustainable solution on this year’s team. Not with Taylor out of the picture and the Jayhawks desperately searching for answers offensively.
Best Case: Kansas’s defense has ranked in the top ten in adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possession) each year since 2005. There’s been no more consistent defense in the land since Bill Self took over in Lawrence in 2003. Were that to continue in 2012-13, with Jeff Withey guarding the pivot and Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore providing a defensive seal on the perimeter, the Jayhawks should again be the team to beat in the Big 12. In a compelling pitch for second-team All-America honors, Withey has a superb senior sendoff, leading the nation in blocked shots and rebounds per 40 minutes. While Withey holds down the fort in the paint, Perry Ellis feeds off the 7-footer on the other end of the floor. Together, as Withey’s stout defense earns him defensive player of the year recognition while Ellis emerges as one of the most lethal face-up 4’s in the game, the two form the most dynamic frontcourt tandem in college hoops. McLemore, perhaps the top red-shirt freshman in America, struts his stuff in his first collegiate season. The super-athletic guard who will assume a variety of roles for coach Self this season provides instant offense off the bench. Johnson, while no Taylor, is sufficient at the point. Though he can’t get to the line and is not a true point, he’s sound enough at the position to engage his big men (the bread and butter of the team). Johnson, like Taylor (who was more of a combo guard himself), racks up tons of critical buckets in high-leverage situations, proving to be another in a long list of clutch performers under Self. Releford is a defensive stalwart on the perimeter and veteran leader who provides just enough in the way of [efficient] scoring to justify extended playing time. In addition to top-end production from Ellis, the Jayhawks gain meaningful contributions from fellow freshmen Andrew White and Landen Lucas. While not as top-heavy, this year’s Kansas team proves deeper than last (which only ran seven-, or at times, eight-deep). KU owns a roster flush with seasoned veterans and talented newcomers, and rides that balance to yet another Big 12 title. After a brief hiccup last year, the Jayhawks return to their winning ways at the Kansas Invitational (Big 12 tournament) and waltz into the NCAA tournament with a No. 2 seed in a so-called ‘transition year.’
Worst Case: This Kansas team is still one or two years away from getting back to the top. Ellis and McLemore show promise, but because of their youth and inexperience, become vulnerable to rookie growing pains. Their success is limited to spurts at a time and is not sustained over the full, five-month-long season. No player in this year’s college landscape is capable of replacing the mammoth hole in production Thomas Robinson leaves behind. It’s heresy to even suggest that a freshman could come close. Withey a stalwart on defense once again, but his offensive game doesn’t make the jump many people associated with the program are banking on. Without a surge in offensive production from the pivot, Kansas is rough around the edges in the half court. There’s plenty of promising talent on the roster, but the cornerstone pieces are still a year or two away from tapping their potential. An inherent flaw in the construction of the roster is exposed mid-season, as it becomes evident that Kansas is filled with two incompatible groups: one of experienced, but unspectacular contributors (Johnson, Releford, Withey) and the other of future college stars not yet ready to contribute at a high level (Ellis, McLemore, Lucas, White). If Johnson, Releford and Withey collectively had the talent of Ellis, McLemore, Lucas and White, or if the freshmen had the seasoned experience that the seniors have, this year’s Jayhawks team would be in business. As it stands though, the veteran leaders on the team lack the requisite star-power while the talented freshmen (who do have the star-power potential) don’t yet have enough in the way of collegiate experience. The Jayhawks are caught in-between contending and rebuilding, and ultimately fall behind Baylor and rival K-State in the Big 12. For the first time in nine years, Kansas does not have a top-ten defense in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency, and so the inevitable offensive regression is compounded by an unforeseen defensive setback as well. The Jayhawks are a solid, but rather ordinary Top 25 team throughout the season, falling early in the NCAA tournament and immediately looking ahead to the 2013-14 campaign and beyond.
Projected Finish: Regular Season: 23-8 (13-5 Big 12), First place Big 12
Win Big 12 tournament
NCAA tournament No. 3 seed

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