KU begins the final Big 12 season tonight at Iowa State.1 They enter the game #3 in the country, 15-0 against a solid schedule (#31 according to collegerpi.com, which also has them ranked #1 overall). Seems like just another good season in Lawrence, right?
Fact is this team remains a mystery halfway through the season. Do they still have room for growth, are they playing about as well as they are capable, or do they have glaring weaknesses that can’t be addressed by the current roster? I’m not certain, and I don’t think anyone is.
The most obvious reason for this uncertainty is the late arrival of freshman Josh Selby. While he sat out his nine game NCAA suspension, there was a feeling that everyone around the program – players, coaches, fans – were in a holding pattern. We wouldn’t see the real KU team until he took the court, and even then it would take awhile for he and his teammates to get acclimated to each other.
The early returns were great; he was the best KU player in his first game, and hit the game winning three pointer for good measure. He’s been quite good in every game since then with the exception of the Michigan game Sunday.
He’s obviously an enormous talent. But it’s still going to take awhile for his role to get carved in stone.
Another reason for the reservations about this team is the hangover from last year. The brutal Northern Iowa game was just the latest reminder that anything can happen in March, and one bad game can wipe out the work of four months. It’s only been four years since the National Championship, but it feels like KU fans are again the mode of enjoying the regular season, but always fearful of getting too excited because of the crapshoot of the NCAA tournament.
There’s another hangover from last year, too. A year ago, the offense revolved around Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Sherron dominated the ball and was the guy who took big shots. The offense waited for Cole to get into position and made sure he got a touch. On defense, Cole was the constant equalizer, able to both shut down the opponent’s big man and block the shots of anyone who beat their man.
With those two players gone, the offense looks a little more like it did from ’06-08. The ball moves more. It goes inside, but the Morrises and Thomas Robinson operate more like Darrell Arthur than Aldrich. And when the team needs a big shot, who takes it depends on who is playing rather than just getting it to #4 and getting out of the way.
I guess you can boil it down to there being fewer sure things this year. This year’s team may have, top-to-bottom, more athletic talent than last year’s. But that talent does not yet translate to having better players.
But they are capable of getting there.
As KU kicks off the pursuit of another Big 12 title, the conference seems as even as it has ever been. Every road game is dangerous, and you can’t expect to just show up and win all your home games. KU kicks off with two winnable games, tonight at Iowa State and Saturday when they host Nebraska. They will be favored in both, but neither is a gimme.
After that comes a stretch where the Jayhawks play at Baylor, host Texas, go to Colorado, host K-State, travel to Nebraska, go to Texas Tech (where Bill Self has never won), and then host Missouri. That’s a stretch where KU could either blow the race open before mid-February or be in a dogfight with several other teams.
Each season begins with a lot of questions. While KU has moved into the role of favorite because of K-State’s early struggles, no one expects this to be a year that the Jayhawks run away with the title. This year’s squad feels like it still has significant upside. But potential doesn’t always get recognized. While there is uncertainty, that also makes the season more interesting. For the first time in a long time, it feels like there’s a rather large range of where this team could end up seven weeks from now.
The old cliché of every game mattering certainly applies this year.
I wanted to throw in a comment about the Mario Little situation. When Little was first arrested for allegedly beating up his girlfriend and several others, I was a proponent of kicking him off the team. I think athletes who beat up non-athletes should be punished severely. And when the victim is a woman, that punishment should be even more severe.
So I was both confused and disappointed when Little was reinstated earlier this week. It sounds as though none of the victims involved were willing to press charges. There is always concern in domestic abuse cases when the female decides not to move forward in court. The fact others were involved gives Little some leeway, but it still feels wrong for him to be working through a number of terms, including anger management sessions, that are part of a diversion agreement.
Little quickly took responsibility and apologized after his arrest in December. Most accounts paint him as a decent guy for which this behavior was out-of-character.
That’s fine, but I’m not sure it should earn Little a place back on the active roster. It’s one thing to say he’s still a part of the team, can remain on scholarship and earn his degree, etc. It’s another to let him back on the court.
I think we all jump to conclusions when athletes are involved in legal scrapes. They deserve the same right to due process and presumption of innocence we would all expect. But when violence against a woman is at the core of the charges, I think the punishment should be a little more than just letting the legal process run its course.
But I have three daughters so maybe I’m biased.
- Although I guess it’s still going to be called the Big 12 next year, despite losing two schools. Whatever. You know what I mean. ↩