Nobody would be surprised to see Kansas University's men's basketball team contend for Big 12 Conference and national titles next season, provided Roy Williams returns for his 16th season as Jayhawk coach.
"We'll still have five or six players who made it to the national-championship game," KU red-shirt freshman guard Jeff Hawkins said of the 2003-04 Jayhawks, who lose Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich from this year's 30-8 squad but return three starters in Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and Jeff Graves, plus Wayne Simien, who should regain his starting role if he bounces back from shoulder surgery.
"I'll miss Nick and Kirk. We'll all miss Nick and Kirk," Hawkins said, "but we have the juniors -- Wayne, Aaron, Keith and Mike (Lee) -- plus a lot of guys coming in. We'll come together and have another good team."
A starting lineup likely would include three guards and two forwards. Juniors Miles and Langford could be joined in the starting five by incoming freshman J.R. Giddens, a 6-foot-5 McDonald's All-American out of Oklahoma City.
Add to that returning junior power forward Simien, who is expected to be 100 percent by late summer following his recent shoulder surgery, plus senior-to-be power forward Graves, who recently has shown NBA potential.
David Padgett, a 6-11 McDonald's All-American from Reno, Nev., is known for solid, fundamental basketball and could battle Graves for a starting spot.
Depth should be no problem next year with Hawkins, Lee (sophomore guard), Bryant Nash (senior forward) and Moulaye Niang (sophomore forward) joined by highly touted freshmen Omar Wilkes, 6-4 from Los Angeles, and three-point marksman Jeremy Case, 6-1 from McAlester, Okla.
Competition should be fierce for playing time, with perhaps 10 or more players logging meaningful minutes.
"We've got a good group of young guys coming in," Hawkins said. "I've seen a couple highlights of Giddens. He's pretty impressive. I really think we'll have a good team. The new guys will mix with the returning guys."
It would all change if Williams coaches at North Carolina next season. In that scenario, KU might have to re-recruit Langford, Miles and all four signees. Mass defections would be possible, if not likely, if the coach departs.
Langford said Monday night he could leave if his coach leaves. Even Leavenworth native Simien, a lifelong Kansas fan, has said he doesn't have a Plan B if his coach exits.
KU on paper has a strong rotation of big men in Simien, Graves, Padgett and Niang, plus Nash who can also work inside and out.
"I don't think anybody would like to see us in a bar brawl or anything like that," Simien said. "We'd probably be the baddest tag-team in the country. We still have some guys with things to prove. We'll see how it goes. D.P. (Padgett) has not played a game yet. Obviously there's a lot of hype -- him coming out of high school. I think he'll step up to the challenge. 'Mou' is a little inexperienced, but we do have a lot of experienced guys coming back."
Will Simien become a coach on the floor?
"I'll have to be," Simien said. "I'll have to assume that leadership role next year with some young and inexperienced guys coming back. I'm ready to do that."
Walk-ons Brett Olson, Stephen Vinson and Christian Moody will return, giving KU 15 players with more walk-ons a possibility.