This year marks Bill Self's 10th season at Kansas, and while he still has a ways to approach the accomplishments of Phog Allen and James Naismith, Self has done a commendable job of keeping Kansas as one of the nation's elite programs.
In his nine seasons in Lawrence, Kansas has never finished worse than second in the Big 12, winning at least a share of the last eight regular season titles along with five more Big 12 tournament titles during that stretch. A trip to the national title game last season and a national championship in 2008 have helped Jayhawk fans get past the fact that Kansas has lost in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament three times and also fell to No. 11 seed VCU in the 2011 Elite 8. In that same timeframe, Self has sent 14 players into the NBA draft -- nine of whom were picked in the first round -- while three other former Jayhawks have reached the NBA.
Perhaps more impressive, however, is that in this era of one-and-dones and early-entry into the NBA draft, only two players under Self have ever gone pro after just one season in Lawrence: Xavier Henry and Josh Selby. (And Selby wasn't good enough to be a one-and-done player; he rode his high school recruiting rankings to the 49th pick.) Only one other player, Julian Wright, has been drafted after spending just two years on campus.
Do the math: 11 of Self's 14 Jayhawk draft picks have spent three or four years on campus. "We'd like to recruit all one-and-dones," Self said with a laugh over the phone last week. "Maybe not all, but we'd like to have a team every year where you've got lottery picks out there."
To be fair, more often than not, he does. But the method by which Kansas produces stars is much different than that of Kentucky.
Self runs a bit of a throwback program. He's one of the best recruiters in the country, routinely pulling in top five classes loaded with kids that are ranked in the top 50 and could have gone anywhere. But it's rare that those freshmen see major minutes immediately. In fact, only once in Self's tenure at Kansas has a freshman led the team in scoring. That came during the 2005-06 season when the Jayhawks lost six of their top seven scorers and were forced to use a starting lineup that included three freshmen and two sophomores. Two of those freshmen and both sophomores would eventually start for the 2008 team that won the national title.
That season was an outlier, as Self's roster usually has an arsenal of his recruits stockpiled, biding their time and working on their games while they wait for their turn. Last season is a perfect example. In 2011, Self sent both of the Morris twins and Selby to the NBA draft at the same time that starters Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed graduated. That's a lot of talent to lose, especially when three-quarters of his 2011 recruiting class was ruled ineligible for the season.
But Kansas not only survived, it thrived, winning the Big 12 regular season by two games and making a run all the way to the NCAA tournament title game. And it wasn't just because Thomas Robinson sprouted into a star or Tyshawn Taylor finally discovered how to be more consistent. The biggest reason the Jayhawks outperformed expectations last season was that the other three starters -- Travis Releford, Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson -- all thrived in new, expanded roles. Withey was the nation's best defensive center last season, Johnson's play in the tournament was a huge reason Kansas made it as far as it did, and Releford was a steadying force on the wing all season.
"Our goal is, whenever their time is right -- whether their time is as a freshman or whether their time is as a sophomore -- they've gotta be prepared to take the ball and run with it," Self said. "We've been very fortunate that the [players we've had], when their number was called, they were ready."
And that's what makes this year's Kansas team so interesting. The majority of the Jayhawks' starting lineup will be seniors, two of whom -- Withey and Releford -- are fifth-year seniors. By the end of the season, however, the other two starters will likely end up being freshmen Ben McLemore and Perry Ellis. And, unlike Kansas teams of the past, it's not going to be the veterans filling up the box scores and enticing NBA scouts to pay a visit to Lawrence.
McLemore, in particular, is expected to have a huge season after redshirting last year; he was ruled academically ineligible out of high school and wasn't even allowed to practice with the team until January. And while that year off might have cost Kansas a better shot at knocking off Kentucky in the title game -- as Self put it, "I would have liked to have him on that Monday night in April. Put another athlete out there, that would have been great for us." -- it may end up being a blessing in disguise for McLemore.
"The hardest thing is not being able to play and be out there with your teammates," McLemore said. "But one of the positives is that the redshirt year you get a chance to develop your game and your ability, learning from being around your teammates."
"I've been in the gym, working out. My ballhandling's getting better. My ability to play defense. I'm also shooting the ball well."
But the biggest improvement he's made, McLemore said, is with his maturity. He understands the importance of getting an education and he understands the necessity for working as hard off the court as he does on it. He only got to go on road trips if they were close and all of his academic work was done. He had to sit on the bench and watch the home games, his only contribution coming if he took part in the famed "Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk" chant.
That's a sobering reality to have to come to grips with for an athlete that has built his entire life around a sport. The other way of looking at it, however, is that sitting out is also a terrific motivational tool.
"He's serious about becoming a player," Self said. "He's been around these guys and he knows how hard they work. He's seen it first-hand and he's very serious about becoming a player. He wants to be coached. To me, those are things that stand out as strong as anybody that's ever played here."
The bottom line is this: Someone has to fill the scoring void left by the departure of Taylor and Robinson, and everyone seems to be in agreement that McLemore is the most talented scorer currently on the Kansas roster. Will it take some time to adjust to playing at the Big 12 level, especially for a freshman coming off of a year where he didn't play ? Of course. But Self isn't necessarily concerned with winning the Champions Classic or the CBE Classic. Heading into Big 12 play with an impressive record and resume will be nice, but the goal for this Kansas team -- as it is every season -- is to win the Big 12 regular season, win the Big 12 tournament and win a national title.
And by the time any of those games come around, McLemore will be more than ready to contribute.
"I really think that by conference, he can really be a guy that can hopefully get you 15 a game," Self said. "He's going to have to get confidence. There are a lot of things that he's going to have to do, but he can run, he can jump and he can shoot. That's a pretty good combination for a wing."
Right now, if there is anything that McLemore is truly struggling with, it's the anticipation.
"Words can't explain how excited I am to be able to play this year," he said. "[But] I think my mom is more excited than me, to be honest. I feel like this is my chance to show everybody what I can do."