In the wake of his team’s most impressive performance, Saturday’s 84-52 victory at Temple, Kansas University basketball coach Bill Self lauded the play of the bench, saying that for the first time all year it didn’t matter what players were in the game. Temple coach Fran Dunphy also made KU’s depth of talent a recurring theme during his postgame session.
The roster is so deep that Self, who usually likes to pare his rotation to eight players, will have a difficult time keeping it to nine. Elijah Johnson, such an extraordinarily quick and scrappy presence, usually is the ninth man in, but in Philadelphia, C.J. Henry, too skilled a long-range shooter to ignore completely, played before him.
Self will sort out the bench minutes in time — the guys who bring the most effort in practice and make the most strides defensively and in understanding the offense will play the most — and opposing coaches will continue to marvel at the KU bench. As all that goes on, one undeniable truth will not get much attention: It’s clear which five players are the team’s best. The starting five has established itself and clearly separated itself from the pack.
The potential for selfish grumbling on the bench exists because of the abundance of talent, but there is no way anybody can grouse about not starting. Sherron Collins, Tyshawn Taylor, Xavier Henry, Marcus Morris and Cole Aldrich will finish most close contests.
As the two preseason All-Americans showed Saturday, it still all starts with Collins and Aldrich. One second-half play exhibited that better than any other. Aldrich came down with a rebound, instantly fired an outlet pass to Collins near midcourt and a blink or two after that, Collins hit Xavier Henry with a perfect pass for a dunk that ignited the huge contingent of Kansas fans, many of whom made the trip from New York City.
The starting five is better than a year ago because of the addition of Xavier Henry, Marcus Morris’ vast improvement and Taylor’s recent leap. Taylor has gone from the team’s third-leading scorer last season to the No. 5 scorer, but with help from reserve Brady Morningstar, is embracing the role of checking the opponent’s top perimeter scorer and has totaled just five turnovers in the past six games.
Defense also is Morris’ greatest asset, although his scoring average has improved from 7.4 points to 11.7 per game. Self recently pointed out that the long, quick-afoot Morris’ versatility as a defender enables him to switch onto anybody on the floor, which increases KU’s defensive options.
Henry looks so polished when scoring from the perimeter and filling a lane on the break that at first blush his game looks more sophisticated than most freshmen, but in many ways it really isn’t. He still lacks the nuances of gaining positioning advantage to rebound and still hasn’t learned how to translate his length and strength into scoring near the bucket. The answer to the question: “What does he contribute when he isn’t holding the ball or guarding the guy who has it?” is similar to that for most freshmen: not much. But Henry has greater talent and better instruction than most freshmen, so it’s reasonable to think he’ll get there more quickly than most. Once he does, this team becomes even better.