Barring a surprising decision to return to school by Ben McLemore, Kansas University’s basketball team will have five new starters when the season opens in November. That’s no way to defend a conference title.
Or is it?
Tenth-year KU coach Bill Self has been there, done that. He lost all five starters after the 2005 loss to Bucknell. The next season, with a starting lineup that featured three freshmen and two sophomores who had played sparingly the previous season, Kansas shared the Big 12 title with a veteran, star-studded Texas squad.
KU again lost all five starters after winning the national title in 2008 and the next season, with two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, finished a game ahead of Blake Griffin-led Oklahoma to win the Big 12 outright. Sherron Collins played starter minutes his first two seasons as sixth man, and Cole Aldrich had blossomed in the 2008 Final Four with his break-out game against North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough.
The 2005-06 situation more closely resembles next season’s outlook in that Kansas has very little experience returning.
Perry Ellis will be the foundation. He sprints the floor like a guard, making him a valuable player in transition in both directions. He has more moves in the low post than Sybil had personalities. He soars high for rebounds, handles the ball extremely well and will grow as a defender, although he probably won’t ever develop into a shot-blocker. The hard-to-guard Ellis will become even more so once his mid-range jumper becomes more of a weapon.
In the last seven games of a 31-6 season, Ellis averaged 26.5 points and 12.7 rebounds per 40 minutes (19.9/9.6 per 30 minutes), shot 66 percent from the field and 86 percent from the line. That’s serious production from the versatile scorer.
Jamari Traylor is the next most experienced returning post player, but experienced isn’t a word often associated with the muscular, quick, explosive power forward from Chicago. He took up basketball late in life, and it sometimes shows. He has a knack for blocking shots, brings terrific energy and can become a scoring threat if he can develop a jumper out to 15 feet, a goal he works tirelessly to achieve.
Landen Lucas, a 6-foot-10 post player from Portland, Ore., has made strides as a basketball player and in building strength while red-shirting.
Moving to the perimeter, Naadir Tharpe has more experience than any returning player. He played and shot better late in the season, hitting 46 percent of his threes and 42 percent of all field goals in the final 10 games, during which time he posted a 2.3 assists-to-turnover ratio. Andrew White III, who showed a nice shooting touch as a freshman in limited time, will compete for time at small forward.
To compete for a league title as the most recent two KU teams with five new starters did, the Jayhawks must match those classes in terms of instant major contributions from talented freshmen. McDonald’s All-American Wayne Selden, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound shooting guard, highlights the five-deep incoming class. Small forward Brannen Greene, combination guard Conner Frankamp and center Joel Embiid also are ranked in the top 40 of the 2013 class by Rivals.com. Self also is high on 5-11 point guard Frank Mason, who is not ranked in the top 100 by Rivals.
Andrew Wiggins, the nation’s top-ranked recruit, could decide to become the first McDonald’s All-American in this class to sign with Florida State, the second to commit to Kansas or the seventh to join Kentucky.
If Wiggins signs with KU, here’s an early guess at a starting lineup: Tharpe, Wiggins, Selden, Ellis and Traylor, with Embiid, Greene, Frankamp and Mason competing hard to supplant one of the starters.
Without Wiggins, the best guess is: Tharpe, Selden, Greene, Ellis and Traylor. This much isn’t a guess: Whatever the starting lineup and bench, both will perform far better in January than in November. A 10th consecutive Big 12 title is a possibility, despite the lack of experience.