There's something about sports polls, particularly preseason guesses, that makes people go a little nutty.
Not long ago, pundits picked Missouri and Texas to finish ahead of Kansas University in the 2004 Big 12 Conference basketball race. The way some fans howled and hooted, you'd have thought Buckskin Billy Quantrill and Stormin' Norman Stewart had come back, sacked Allen Fieldhouse and kidnapped Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford.
There were immediate charges about biased voting by alumni of this school or that. Several nitwits even theorized that it never would have happened if Roy Williams still headed the KU program. Just how silly is that with the Tigers and Longhorns as loaded as they are and Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison gone?
Get over it, folks. What's it have to do with anything?
So KU finishes third in the regular-season race. Sadly, the full-season performances no longer mean much because of the tournament moneymaker and the emphasis on the NCAA and the Final Four. A Big 12 title is a marvelous feat, but think how few treat it as reverently as it deserves.
Whatever the pollsters think, I believe Kansas will be, by January, as good as any team in the country. The key to me is Simien's shoulder staying as healed as that of pro star Chris Webber, whose wing was retrofitted by the same medic who restructured Wayne.
If this is the year Simien finally shakes the injury bug and generates the consistent excellence his 6-foot-9, 255-pound frame so long has promised, he will contend for All-America; Kansas can be hell on wheels. Given full faculties in peak shape, Simien can be as outstanding as Collison last season, maybe even better. Wayne sure can't free throw much worse.
Missouri boasts a hard-core crew of Arthur Johnson, Rickey Paulding, Travon Bryant and Jimmy McKinney. MU has cut out the malignant presence of miscreant Ricky Clemons and boasts dandy newcomers. Coach Quin Snyder is getting an increasing reputation for doing less with more, but you can't depend on that. The Tigers are snarling in their lair, eager to chase, attack, kill and eat, and they seem to be coming together.
With coach Rick Barnes, Texas fans have begun to consider basketball their third major sport beyond football and spring football. Barnes has brought about a reconfiguration of UT's 16,000-plus home court to the advantage of his Longhorns.
Gone is crafty point guard T.J. Ford. Yet when you return people such as James Thomas, Brandon Mouton, Sydmill Harris, Jason Klotz, Brad Buckman, Royal Ivey and Brian Boddicker, it's little wonder expectations are high.
Never take Oklahoma and Kelvin Sampson for granted, even if Ebi Ere, Quannas White and Hollis Price are absent. Kelvin finds effective people somehow, somewhere.
But if you get to feeling uncertainty about new coach Bill Self and Kansas, sort through that 16-man roster. Consider the potential, the versatility and skill, even if there are a lot of youthful and untested athletes.
Just for fun, let's project the starting five as Simien, 6-9 Jeff Graves, 6-4 Keith Langford, the 6-1 Miles and either 6-3 Michael Lee or 6-5 rookie J.R. Giddens. Lee might get the early nod because he plays a lot better defense than Giddens -- or any of the freshmen, big or little.
It's no secret that Self has been pleased with what Lee has shown and might be inclined to bring along the rookies more slowly. By the time they recognize what it means to play big-league defense, Self may be so happy with a Miles-Lee tandem he'll rotate guys as teams. There are personnel to make that possible.
Kansas could field a nifty all-freshman quintet of 6-11 David Padgett, 6-5 Giddens, 6-4 Omar Wilkes, 6-2 Nick Bahe and 6-0 Jeremy Case. That would be a four-guard crew and its defense might be atrocious. But Allen Fieldhouse has seen a lot weaker fives on its boards.
If he's healthy, Simien is a fixture, same as Miles at the point and Langford as a swingman. Padgett has been eye-opening with his effort and work ethic, not to mention his skills. If Jeff Graves gets even the least bit tentative, he'll be coming in to relieve Padgett.
Nick Collison in his farewell speech last year publicly advised Graves to push himself to the fullest to reap the rewards available -- at least a lucrative career in Europe if not in the NBA. Jeff still has his ups and downs. If he can gain consistency even near the 16-point, 16-rebound explosion in the 2003 NCAA title game, he and Simien can be devastating.
Along with an all-frosh and all-vet lineup for Kansas, let's take five other guys and jump center. Not a shabby gang. There could be a quadruple tower unit with 6-10 Moulaye Niang, 6-8 Christian Moody, 6-7 Bryant Nash and 6-7 Brett Olson. Jeff Hawkins and Stephen Vinson could orchestrate a four-forward-one-guard operation.
Of course, Self won't throw three such lineups at anyone, but each unit has mix-and-match talent that can contribute a lot once experience and fiercer defense can be blended.
So what if Mizzou and Texas are picked ahead of the Jayhawks for 2003-04? The personable Self's loosier-goosier style and his tendency to let kids free-lance more than Roy Williams did could give us some terrific thrills.
And once Giddens plays defense well enough to earn more time, you're going to be in for a truly delightful treat. Another athletic Kenny Gregory? Nope. This guy can shoot.