Ever the optimist, Bill Self brightened the mood of Kansas University's sullen, shell-shocked basketball fans last April 10.
"We're going to be good," Self, Kansas University's basketball coach declared of his 2007-08 Jayhawk team.
He was speaking to 600 fans at KU's postseason awards celebration at the Holiday Inn Holidome a day after Julian Wright's declaration to turn pro after just two seasons on Mount Oread.
Remember, fan favorite Wright, who averaged 12.0 points and 7.8 boards for the 33-5 Jayhawks, before and after KU's final game had insisted he'd be back for his junior campaign.
"If you decide to come back," Self told Brandon Rush, the team's leading scorer with a 13.8 average, at the banquet, "I'll line up and play anybody, anywhere because we're going to be really, really good."
Rush did ultimately decide to return for his junior season, in large part because he suffered a torn right ACL in a pickup game in late May.
He had surgery on June 1 and immediately entered a four- to six-month rehab stint that could have him back in action in November or December.
"I think we'll be one of the more talented teams around," Self said of the Jayhawks with or without Rush. "We're still young. We've still got some pups playing, but we've got some experience, too."
The pups include sophomores Sherron Collins, Darrell Arthur and Brady Morningstar as well as freshmen Cole Aldrich and Tyrel Reed.
The experience consists of senior stalwarts Russell Robinson, Sasha Kaun, Darnell Jackson, Jeremy Case and Rodrick Stewart to go with juniors Rush and Mario Chalmers. Walk-ons on the roster include Brennan Bechard, Chase Buford, Conner Teahan, Matt Kleinmann and junior Brad Witherspoon.
"It would have been nice to keep that entire bunch together," Self said of all contributing players from his 33-5 team that won the Big 12 regular-season title and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAAs.
"That will not happen very often in today's times. I like the makeup of our team. I like our leadership."
Leadership to be provided by the large senior class.
"Russell has had a great career," he noted of point guard Robinson, who contributed 7.2 points a game while dishing a team-leading 161 assists against 67 turnovers.
"He is the standard. He's been rock solid for us, the heart and soul of our team. To think where he was at one time ... he hardly played at the end of his freshman year. He stuck with it and it has paid off."
Senior center Kaun is hoping to improve on his 5.9 scoring and 3.8 rebounding average.
"Sasha has to stay healthy. He can be an impact guy," Self said. "When he is playing well he is kind of like a glue guy. Sasha is one of the better post defenders out there. He contributes a lot even when the appearance is he's not doing as much statistically. We've got to get him where he's quicker going after balls better. He's making a conscious effort to do that."
Senior power forward Jackson netted 5.5 points and 5.1 boards a year ago.
"Darnell improved as much as anybody the last third of the season," Self said. "When you think of where he was and is now, I could not be more proud of him. He's one of our best shooters. I think he's come a long way offensively. My biggest concern is rebounding the ball, having a low post presence and impacting the game on the defensive end, not giving up easy baskets, changing and altering shots. That's the area he has to get better in."
Senior shooting guard Stewart scored 28 points in 30 games while logging 19 assists to seven turnovers a year ago.
"I'm all for doing whatever it takes to help the team win, play outside, inside," said the versatile Stewart. "Even if they need me to play the five, I'll be doing it. I've worked on my shot and my conditioning (all summer). I'm ready for my senior year."
said the versatile Stewart.
Senior shooting guard Case hit 10 of 27 threes in 19 games.
"When you look at the big scope of things," Self said, "Jeremy is a guy who has kept a great attitude. He's in his fifth year and not played yet. We keep saying if he gets three good looks he'll make two of them and change the game. I still believe it'll happen. He and Rod are back and I think are guys who potentially can help.
"Hopefully our seniors will put everything on their shoulders, police each other and set a table for a very good year," Self said. "I like our leadership in that group."
The marquee players remain non-seniors.
Rush is coming off a sophomore season in which he made 44.3 percent of his shots and 41.3 percent of his three-pointers while becoming a stopper.
"He is a guy focused, who loves to play and compete which I like the most about him," Self said. "He'll be ready."
Self said Rush was not brooding over the fact he's back at KU for a third season. In all likelihood, he'd have continued in the draft had he not gotten hurt.
"He likes his teammates. He likes it here," Self said of the player expected to be back in games by Dec. 1. "Ask him would you rather be here or the NBA if he could be slotted where he could be, sure, 90 percent of all kids would answer the NBA. Another year will help him from a skill development standpoint. He'll have his explosiveness back 100 percent by the time he's through this deal. It'll prove to people how bad he wants it. He could still help himself (in draft) quite a bit."
Shooting guard/point guard Chalmers is the squad's only other junior on scholarship. He averaged 12.2 points off 49.1 percent shooting. He made 40.4 percent of his threes and had a KU single-season record 97 steals, while also registering 124 assists to 91 turnovers.
"Mario is an amazing guy. I've never coached a guy who takes the other guy's ball like Mario. I mean he just takes it," Self said of the cat-quick guard. "He's incredible inside the lane shooting over big guys. Very few guys have that kind of touch. Mario has a chance to be as good an all-around guard as we've had since I've been here, without question. He sees the game, plays at a good speed and obviously defensively has very, very good hands."
The sophomore class includes Arthur, Collins and Morningstar.
Power forward Arthur averaged 9.8 points and 4.7 boards last season.
"He's a good, solid all-around player who is starting to figure out how to do it on this level," Self said of the 53.8 percent shooter. "He's relied so much on athletic ability in the past. Darrell will be one of the better guys in our league, no question. He's a talent, has a chance to be a special, special guy."
Point guard Collins, who was slowed by a knee injury in the postseason last year, averaged 9.3 points off 47.8 percent shooting, including a 40.5 percent mark from three-point land.
"Sherron is so creative. He gets around anybody," teammate Rush said. "He is so fast and so strong."
"He's become one of our premier players," Self said, "one we have faith and trust in. I talk about guys pursuing balls. Sherron pursues balls as well as anybody. Maybe it's his football mentality coming out. For his size, he mixes it up pretty well."
Shooting guard Morningstar played sparingly as a rookie, averaging 2.1 points in 16 games. He made 13 of 26 shots and four of nine threes.
"He is one of the hardest workers in the gym," teammate Arthur said. "He's one of the best shooters. Coach says his time is coming. He gets a little nervous when he's in. He needs to work through that. Coach says his time will come."
"He is a good shooter, athletic, competitive, has become a pretty good defender," Self lauded. "He is just some experience away. He will impact the program."
Also back are walk-ons Kleinmann, Bechard and Witherspoon.
The freshmen are: scholarship players Aldrich and Reed as well as walk-ons Conner Teahan and Chase Buford.
Self doesn't argue with those who tap his team a top-five squad in the preseason.
"If we had all our players return, they could make a case for us being No. 1. Same if Florida returned all their players and if North Carolina returned all their players," Self said.
"I certainly expect we'll be good. We will prepare for our season like we've got our full complement of players. If we don't have Brandon for a bit, we'll make adjustments.
"Teams have to adjust when these things happen. We could do a lot of different things, like play three little guards like we did at Illinois with Luther (Head), Dee (Brown) and Deron (Williams). This could make us better."