Even after losing All-Americans Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor to the NBA, Kansas will be a serious contender to make a return trip to the national title game this season. For the Jayhawks to fulfill that potential, though, they’ll need to navigate a schedule that features plenty of opponents with Final Four aspirations of their own.
The Michigan State Spartans, who failed to take advantage of a No. 1 seed last season, have reloaded with a backcourt of Keith Appling and star freshman Gary Harris. Never a program to shy away from a tough non-conference foe, they make a trip to Lawrence to take on the Jayhawks in December.
Read on for more on the showdown with the Spartans and seven more of the most critical matchups Kansas faces on its potential road to Atlanta this season.
The Big 12’s newest members are coming off an iffy 19-14 campaign and the loss of star forward Kevin Jones to graduation.
However, Bob Huggins’ team has an ace in the hole in the form of a couple of transfers who will give the Jayhawks all they can handle.
Former LaSalle center Aaric Murray (who averaged 15.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore) and ex-Dayton PG Juwan Staten (5.4 assists a night as a freshman) will provide the offense to complement Huggins’ always-potent defense.
Add in senior PF Deniz Kilicli, with his 6’9”, 260-lb frame, and Kansas will regret it in a big way if they overlook the Mountaineers in Morgantown.
Kansas freshman Perry Ellis will get a major early test in a renewal of this former Big 12 rivalry.
Colorado PF Andre Roberson doesn’t have Ellis’ size, but he outplayed bigger forwards throughout 2011-12 to the tune of 11.1 rebounds per game, the fifth-best figure in the country.
With 6’10” freshman Josh Scott joining Roberson in the frontcourt, Colorado will be a much more physical team than the one that captured last year’s Pac-12 tournament title.
The Jayhawks will also be challenged on the perimeter by Spencer Dinwiddie and the rest of the Buffaloes’ three-point shooters.
Even during last year’s rocky 20-14 season, Texas was a very dangerous team on its home floor. The Jayhawks narrowly escaped from Austin with a three-point win last year, and they’ll find a much tougher Longhorns team waiting for them in January.
Standout sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo, with his 9.6 points and 5.2 assists per game, is being joined by a brigade of high-powered freshman big men led by Cameron Ridley.
The youngsters won’t have it easy against Kansas’ Jeff Withey inside, but Texas’ size and depth up front will still give Bill Self’s squad a run for its money here.
Jeff Withey gets a rare opportunity to pick on someone his own size (or nearly) as he bangs with K-State’s 6’11”, 250-lb Jordan Henriquez.
Of course, Henriquez’s main responsibility will be to keep Withey from shutting down the heart of the Wildcat offense, shooting guard Rodney McGruder.
McGruder averaged 15.8 points and 5.2 rebounds a night last season, and while his perimeter game is impressive (.385 three-point shooting), he needs to penetrate to play at his best.
If McGruder steps up in his final home game in this hard-fought rivalry, he could be a difference-maker in a defensive struggle.
Redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, KU’s likely starter at the shooting guard spot, won’t face a tougher matchup all season than Michigan State’s Gary Harris.
The prize of Tom Izzo’s recruiting class will be a leading contender for the Big Ten scoring title, and his ability to create his own shots or rack up points in the catch-and-shoot game will push even the athletic McLemore to his limits.
The bruising Spartan frontcourt will provide some challenges of its own, though they’re unlikely to do much scoring against Jeff Withey and company.
If Harris can shoulder the scoring load, though, the Spartans have just as tough a defense as KU’s—the two teams finished second and third in the country, respectively, in field-goal percentage allowed in 2011-12.
Kansas gets a doozy of a draw for their Big 12 opener in January, facing off with the Iowa State squad that stunned them in Ames a season ago. Royce White may be gone, but the 2012-13 edition of the Cyclones won't be a pushover by any means.
Skillful freshman Georges Niang will provide plenty of scoring in White’s former starting spot, but the real threat is swingman Will Clyburn.
The 6’7” Utah transfer will be a fearsome matchup for hardworking Kansas senior Travis Releford outside, and a big game from Clyburn could well spark another ISU upset.
The only road date on Kansas’ non-conference schedule will be one of the marquee games anywhere in the country in the early season.
Both teams in this Final Four rematch have suffered serious losses to the NBA, but the talent that’s left will put on quite a show in Columbus.
Aaron Craft, who grabbed three steals in the Buckeyes' two-point March loss, will be the key man in a defense that should be even better than last year’s version.
Unless Elijah Johnson plays a monster game against Craft, Deshaun Thomas has a great chance to light up freshman Perry Ellis for more than enough points to win the game for Ohio State.
With the conference title and a shot at a No. 1 seed likely on the line, Kansas faces its toughest game of the Big 12 schedule in the regular-season finale.
The Jayhawks must go on the road against a Baylor team that will likely be playing for the conference crown itself—a team that has the best offense Kansas can expect to face for the entire season.
With sweet-shooting Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip outside, plus high-powered freshman Isaiah Austin in the pivot, the Bears will have enough weapons to scare even the imposing Jayhawk defense.
Baylor has some defensive chops of its own (especially with another big-time recruit, Ricardo Gathers, joining Austin in the post), so both this game and the meeting in Lawrence two months earlier can be expected to go right down to the wire.