Feb. 12, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

Great college basketball programs are expected to reload in a hurry. But even for a fine program like Kansas, the success the Jayhawks have had thus far this season is a bit of a surprise.

The defending national champions lost all five of their starters from last year’s squad and only returned two players - junior guard Sherron Collins and sophomore center Cole Aldrich - that even played any sort of significant minutes. Yet, the Jayhawks are currently second in the Big 12 with an 8-1 conference record and, despite a heartbreaking, two-point loss on the road to Missouri on Monday, have won 11 of their last 13 and compiled a 19-5 record.

Overall, Kansas lost nine players from last year’s roster. Four former Jayhawks - Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson - have homes in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers, respectively.

The losses are even more daunting when you look at it by the numbers. Kansas lost 69.1 points per game from last year’s roster or 86 percent of its scoring. It also lost 30.7 rebounds a game, which accounted for 79 percent of its rebounding.

So how does a team that is unproven and consists of seven freshmen, five sophomores and only five upperclassmen manage to maintain its standing as a national power?

Sophomore guard Tyrel Reed, one of the many Jayhawks that has stepped into a much bigger role this year, thinks it comes down to leadership.

“I think it’s helped that Sherron and Cole played a little bit last year and Sherron has played a majority of the minutes since he’s been here,” Reed said. “He’s just been a really vocal leader and I think that’s really helped this young group. He’s stepped up, with Cole as well, helping us young guys and making sure we’re doing the right things to win.”

If you’re going to learn how to win, who better than Collins? Since Collins has been in Lawrence, Kan., the Jayhawks have gone a combined 91-13 with two Big 12 titles and have reached the Elite Eight and of course were winners of last year’s national title. In 2007-08, the 5-foot-11 guard won the Big 12 Sixth Man Award and this year he has increased his scoring production over eight points a night to average a team-leading 17.6, while also dishing out five assists a game.

The other key returnee for 16th-ranked Kansas is the ever-improved Aldrich. The 6-foot-11 center averaged 2.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in only 8.3 minutes a game last year. This year he is pouring in 14.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in nearly 30 minutes a night.

Despite all the turnover that leaves this team nearly unrecognizable to last year’s team, the young players this year try to emulate their graduated former teammates.

“We refer back to things that they did but it’s a completely different year,” Reed said. “We just try to build and try to do some of the things that last year’s team did because they did them so well and that’s why they were national champions.”

One of the freshmen that has risen to the occasion is Tyshawn Taylor. The 6-foot-3 guard is third on the team with 9.7 points a game. The freshmen Morris brothers, Marcus and Markieff, combine for 12.3 points a night while the sophomore duo of Reed and Brady Morningstar, both who are seeing their first substantial playing time this year, have acclimated quickly and averaged a combined 14.4 points per game.

“Being from Kansas we always feel like we have a chance to re-coop with whoever we have,” Reed said. “We have a great coach, great fans, so we feel like we have a chance to be good no matter what. This is a young team but we have a lot of confidence in ourselves. We still have a long way to go but I think we’ve done a decent job so far playing to our strengths and not acting like too much of a young team.”

Of Kansas’ top eight scorers only Collins and transfer Mario Little, who is playing his first year in Kansas after transferring, are upperclassmen.

As of now with seven regular season games left, Kansas sits in second place in the Big 12, a game and a half behind No. 2 Oklahoma. The Jayhawks will travel to Norman, Okla. to play the Sooners Feb. 23 in a game that could have enormous ramifications on the Big 12 title.

This weekend, coach Bill Self will take his team to play intra-state rival Kansas State (17-7, 6-4 Big 12) where bragging rights and Big 12 positioning are on the line.

Kansas is fortunate to host both other Big 12 powers Missouri (21-4, 8-2) and Texas (16-7, 5-4) later in the year and if this efficient young squad – they have the second highest shooting percentage in the Big 12 and hold opponents a Big 12 best 38 percent shooting – continue to play like they have, the future is looking bright not only this season, but for years to come.

“We have a chance to be really good this year,” Reed said. “As time goes on people are going to stay around depending on whatever happens with the NBA, but we don’t worry about that. We’ve got great players now and great players coming in so I think we have a chance to be good for the long run.”

And if Kansas can have a good year despite what they lost from last year’s team, it’s safe to say Kansas should continue to be an elite team for quite some time.