Departures cause concern at KansasBill Self doesn't have the usual depth of talent coming back, but you can't count out his Jayhawks
"The last two weeks have sucked," Self told supporters at the team's season-ending banquet Monday. "When you try hard and invest in something, it hurts. Beginning tonight, it's over. Get excited for next year."
For some, that may be difficult.
Marcus and Markieff Morris have announced they are leaving school a year early for the NBA draft, and freshman Josh Selby will likely follow suit. Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed are out of eligibility and – although it's still a work in progress – the Jayhawks' latest recruiting class isn't as attention-grabbing as some of the others in the Self era.
Even with pro prospects Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor returning, there seems to be a legitimate reason for concern in Lawrence. If the Jayhawks are ever going to experience a rebuilding season, next year may be it.
Or at least that's how it appears on paper.
Conventional wisdom, however, suggests it would be unwise to bet against Self and the Jayhawks, whose string of seven straight Big 12 titles is almost hard to fathom. Time and time again, Kansas has found a way to flourish during a time when so many assumed it would flounder.
• Kansas seemed destined for a down year after losing Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, J.R. Giddens and Michael Lee following the 2005-06 season. Instead, the Jayhawks went 25-8 overall and 13-3 in the Big 12 using a lineup that consisted of three freshmen starters (Julian Wright, Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers).
• Five players – Rush, Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun – were drafted from a 2008 national championship team that also lost starting point guard Russell Robinson. But the Jayhawks answered with a 27-8 record and a Sweet 16 berth the next year thanks to Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Self was named national coach of the year.
• Kansas lost Collins and NBA lottery picks Aldrich and Xavier Henry from a squad that went 33-3 in 2009-10. Dick Vitale actually picked Self's squad to finish fifth in the league. How did the Jayhawks respond?
"We went 35-3," Self said Monday. "Expectations will always be high. We'll be very good again next year. We're losing good guys – really good guys. [People say], 'How can we ever replace them?' But we always do."
It's not as if the Jayhawks' roster has been completely decimated. Taylor, who may have been drafted in the second round had he left school a year early, will return for his fourth year as a starter in Kansas' backcourt.
"I think I can play in the NBA," Taylor said. "My time is going to come. I'm not rushing it."
Taylor was overshadowed by Collins during his first two seasons. And his junior year, which included a suspension for violating team rules, was somewhat of a disappointment until the postseason, when he averaged 12 points and five assists in his last six games. That's when Taylor turned up his aggression and began using his speed – Taylor's biggest attribute – to his advantage.
Elijah Johnson, an excellent defender and arguably the most athletic player on Kansas' roster, will likely team with Taylor on the perimeter, giving the Jayhawks one of the fastest, most experienced backcourts in the Big 12. Incoming freshman guard Naadir Tharpe is a distributor who will likely be Kansas' top guard off the bench.
Travis Releford has mostly been a role player during his time in Lawrence, which includes a redshirt year in 2009-10. He didn't score a single point during the final month of last season. Releford, though, could end up being Kansas' small forward, especially if touted signee Ben McLemore is slow to progress.
A 6-foot-9 forward, Robinson should easily be Kansas' best player. He averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds as a sophomore despite playing just 14 minutes per game. By the end of the 2010-11 season Robinson had blossomed into one of the top sixth men in the country and was regarded as a surefire first-round NBA draft pick. Robinson, though, elected to return to Kansas for at least one more year.
"If I leave now, my legacy would not be how I want it," Robinson told reporters Monday. "I want to come back to school and make a name for myself as a Jayhawk and try to improve to be one of the best bigs in the country."
Robinson also said the potential of an NBA lockout factored into his decision.
"There may be no training camps," he said. "I have one of the best big-man coaches right here. Another year with [Danny] Manning is huge for me. I want to come back and be the leader of our team."
Robinson will be joined in the paint by Jeff Withey, a 7-footer who – partly because of injuries – had little impact in his first two seasons in Lawrence. Self said he wouldn't be surprised if Withey led the Big 12 in blocks next season.
He'll certainly have plenty of competition.
With Tristan Thompson returning to Texas and Perry Jones opting for another season at Baylor, the conference will be full of star power once again. Still, even though it may be tempting, the Jayhawks have proven it's unwise to predict they'll finish anywhere but the top.
Not that their aspirations end with the league title.
"Our goal will always be to cut down the nets on a Monday night in April," Self told fans Monday. "It didn't happen this year, but I guarantee you it will happen again."