I planned on posting some pre/early season thoughts on KU basketball yesterday, but got distracted by one thing after another, and decided to watch last night’s game against Michigan State first.

The game confirmed everything I was thinking about this year’s squad: they are immensely talented with some glaring weaknesses and are certainly overrated now, but have the benefit of everyone being in love with KU/Bill Self after last March’s run and people ranking them based on where they think they’ll be next March.

For 35 minutes last night they out-Izzoed the Spartans. But, after going up 5 with 5:00 to play, the Spartans took control of the game and made the big plays in the final minute to get the win. It was reminiscent of the last time these teams played, in the 2009 Sweet 16 here in Indianapolis. This time it was Keith Appling making the ridiculous plays late instead of Kalin Lucas.1

No matter, these early season games don’t mean what they used to.2 When I was a kid, these games weren’t played until the first week of December, when teams had been practicing for nearly two months. These early November games just don’t have the quality those games had. And while I think the players want to win, everyone knows they’re going to be playing in the tournament. Throw in the tepid atmosphere inside the cavernous dome and it ain’t like it used to be.

The larger point, though, is that the game was just a warm-up for all that is to come. It’s a good win for Michigan State, a good loss for KU. And will be forgotten when each team gets to conference play.

What did we see, though? KU, built around three core seniors, will be a stout defensive team. That was the most positive thing from the game: the newcomers seem to understand the intensity needed on the defensive end and willing to bring it. Well, most of the time. When they lock in, it’s going to be tough to score on them.

Two areas of concern, though, are offense and inside depth.

Who is going to score consistently on this team? Elijah Johnson will pick up his game, as he did last March. But I don’t think either Jeff Withey or Travis Releford are guys you can count on for 15+ points every night. They’ll both have nights where they touch 20 points, but they are defensive specialists who seem more likely to be in the 10 ppg range. Ben McLemore is going to be very, very good. Practicing during the second semester last season really helped his game. But he’s still a freshman, and no matter how talented, will have torrid nights and frigid ones.3 Perry Ellis is going to be a solid player, but again, he’s still a kid. He looked overwhelmed last night. Remember that in March when he looks like a man.

And on and on. That’s the common story for most of this lineup. Aside from McLemore, there’s not a pure scorer in the current rotation. Which increases the pressure on every player to chip in what they can.

The post is a concern because Jeff Withey is still a very limited offensive player. I think Jamari Traylor is going to be great, but like Thomas Robinson, it’s going to take him a couple years to be consistently good on the offensive end. I can’t wait for him to be on the court most of the time, though. For now, Ellis isn’t strong enough to be a true inside force against other teams with size. As he gets stronger, and learns more about the game, that will change. But he’s not a guy who will make things easier for Withey right now.

It’s interesting that Bill Self seems inclined to red-shirt Landen Lucas. He must really not be ready for D1 ball, because the team needs another body down low, and with Zach Peters potentially out for the year, Lucas is that guy. It was one thing to only go three-deep down low last year when you had a first team All-American filling the 4 spot. It’s another with this mix of players.

I was also surprised that neither Rio Adams or Andrew White III got any minutes last night. The team needs a third point guard and Adams seems like that guy. Both he and White arrive with reputations for putting points on the board, too. In the two exhibition games and the season opener, both had mixed moments. I guess Self wanted to play with a short rotation and look to get them minutes over the next month.

Anyway, that was a solid loss against a team that will go deep into the tournament in March. This year’s KU team is going to have nights where everything clicks and they look great, and nights where they can’t hit a shot and lose ugly. Last night was a little of both.

I think this team will be quite good before all is said and done. They’ll get through those rough patches and have a high seed in March. And then it will all come down to who they play. All season I’m going to remind myself that this is a bridge season, connecting the last seven seasons to the next 4-5-6 seasons. That’s a little unfair to the guys on this year’s team, but when you look at their strengths and weaknesses, I think it’s a reasonable statement. That doesn’t mean they can’t play deep into March or provide a bunch of special memories. But it does mean that despite the various prognosticators who are putting them in the Final Four, I see this as a year where getting to Atlanta is just out of reach.

But the young guys are going to learn a lot and next year will begin another cycle where Final Fours will be expected by many, and anything less seen as a failure. This is a year to embrace the shift of expectations, enjoy a bunch of young pups learning and growing, and be thankful that at KU, rebuilding seasons are still pretty damn good.

Rock Chalk, bitches.

  1. Why does EVERY Michigan State player seem like they’ve been there forever? There’s always the joke about player X or Y being a 19th year senior, but it seems like every MSU player makes an impact as a freshman then hangs around for four years. 
  2. Cue Old Man Rant. 
  3. Sucked having Indy native Gary Harris, also a freshman, be the leading scorer for MSU. McLemore is very good, but Harris is freakishly good. And given his size, I expect him to be in Lansing for at least three years.