College Preseason Top 25: No. 1, Kansas
Kansas is ready to Rock Chalk Jayhawk itself all the way to Indianapolis.
Of all the programs that benefited from underclassmen turning the NBA down for one more year, none saw as much of a dramatic rise in their stock as the Jayhawks. With the return of Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich to Lawrence for another go, Bill Self’s squad goes from the middle of the pack in the Big 12, to a preseason favorite amongst many pundits to win a second national championship in three years. While the upperclassman duo is getting the bulk of the media’s attention heading into the season, a phenomenal supporting cast of returning players and new faces will fill in the gaps to give Kansas as deep and talented of a roster as any program in the country.
Kansas is loaded at every position, starting with the backcourt where there is more than enough athleticism to overwhelm any team in the country. Collins is the anchor here and has the opportunity to emerge as the premier floor general in the country after finally getting a chance to step into a lead role last season as a junior and blossoming into a star. To average nearly 19 points while dishing out 5 assists in a loaded Big 12 conference is a tremendous accomplishment and though his scoring numbers might dip this year given the influx of talent, the Chicago native might be an even more dynamic scorer in his final season at the college level. The senior is quick and explosive, possessing strong handles and pretty good court vision. He is still fairly turnover prone at this point in his career, but his ability to run the pick and roll effectively will catch the attention of NBA scouts. As a scorer, Collins greatly improved his ability to shoot off the dribble from mid-range and remains a respectable perimeter shooting threat. He does struggle to finish around the rim in the half court set though given his lack of size.
Collins’ running mate will likely be sophomore Tyshawn Taylor who emerged as a big time player for the USA Junior National Team this summer. A super long 6-3 combo guard, Taylor is a big time presence on the defensive end (a must for a late run in March) and while his offensive game is still streaky right now, he has the athleticism to overcome some of his underdeveloped skills. His handles are modest at this point, but he does feature a very quick first step that will allow him to get into the lane. Taylor had some success shooting from the perimeter (36 percent) but did show that he is continually developing his ability to knock down the mid-range jumper off the bounce. This latter skill was particularly evident during the run with the junior national team. In transition is where the sophomore really excels thanks to his ability to elevate around the rim and run the open floor with purpose. While he still has a ways to go, Taylor has shown the potential to handle point guard responsibilities for short stretches at least in the upcoming season. Having two players on the floor capable of operating an offense will give Self a lot of flexibility with how he wants to spread the floor.
The likely candidate for the starting small forward position will be McDonald’s All-American Xavier Henry, a top-five talent who will be a match up nightmare for most teams with his 6-7 frame and versatile skill set. Henry of course was the focus of a lot of attention during the spring months after originally committing to play at Memphis, but reopening his recruitment in the wake of John Calipari departing for Kentucky. The blue chipper has one of the more advanced skill sets in his class, able to score in a variety of ways already. The forward is a super athlete, possessing solid handles and a real nose for the basket. Henry can shoot from just about anywhere on the floor, though his mid-range game looks like it could be his bread and butter as it continues to develop. He also excels in transition thanks to his leaping ability, open floor speed and great understanding of running the lanes. While Henry may not be as prolific of a scorer as he was in high school this year given the number of weapons the Jayhawks feature, there is no doubt the freshman will be able to put up impressive numbers on any given night.
Junior guard Brady Morningstar may see his playing drop from the 30 minutes he saw last year, but the 6-3 scorer will be no less valuable to the Kansas backcourt. The Lawrence native got nearly half of his touches in spot up situations where he was a deadeye catch and shoot threat, connecting on 42 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. The rest of his game was a bit limited in terms of efficiency, but certainly Morningstar can be a very strong contributor again this year. Another individual who can be a top rotational player in the Kansas backcourt will be top-50 recruit Elijah Johnson. The native of Las Vegas can play both guard positions, though he is much more of a scorer than playmaker at this point. He can score amongst the trees inside and is long enough to be a terror defensively much like Taylor. Think Mario Chalmers with a bit more size here.
As if the backcourt didn’t posses enough talent, the Jayhawks will have a slew of interior players who will make life difficult for opposing Big 12 frontcourts. Cole Aldrich would have been a lottery pick had he opted for the draft; instead he will be on a short list of names for preseason All-Americans as a junior. At 6-11 250 pounds, there are going to be few at the college level who can body up the Minnesota native on the block. Aldrich has made tremendous strides in all aspects of his offensive game, improving his range, his touch and his back to the basket moves. As a sophomore the big man was a force, averaging a double-double while shooting just a hair under 60 percent from the floor – did we mention he blocked nearly three shots per game as well? On the block, Aldrich is a nicely developing finesse player who features the baby hook and turnaround jumper in his arsenal. He has also greatly improved his range, now a legitimate threat out to 18-feet with his albeit, awkward shot. His still has a ways to go as a defender, lacking great fundamentals, but he is a tough customer nonetheless thanks to his physical play and pretty solid lateral quickness for a post player.
The Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus are back, with the former showing a lot of upside during his freshman season. Marcus is a solid 6-9 225-pound power forward with a still developing skill set, but good instincts already. He moves well off the ball – a major plus in the Kansas half court offense – and shows a good amount of versatility as well. The sophomore is quick enough to take slower big men off the dribble when he chooses to face up and he has the ability to knock down the occasional perimeter shot as well if left open. Given the amount of attention that Aldrich will be drawing inside, there will be even more opportunities for him to take advantage of weaker matchups inside to get his baskets. An early double-double against Syracuse last season is just the tip of the iceberg with this youngster. Joining inside as well will be blue chip recruit Thomas Robinson, a top-50 player in his class who is a rebounding machine. The 6-8 power forward is a strong, physical athlete can hit the mid-range jumper and on occasion can handle the ball in the open floor if need be. He will make his presence felt on the glass in his first season though, able to haul in loose basketballs at both ends of the floor at a high rate.
The Jayhawks have the perfect combination of size, athleticism, experience and balance to make a very deep run into the month of March. They have length at every spot on the floor, a quick balanced backcourt and a tough rugged frontcourt that will help in grind it out games. While nothing is ever a guarantee in college basketball, fans in Lawrence, barring a major injury, wouldn’t be completely out of line if they booked tickets to Indianapolis in the near future.