Kansas Basketball: 5 Signs the Jayhawks Are a Final Four Favorite

Andrew Doughty@adoughty88Correspondent IIJanuary 31, 2013

Kansas Basketball: 5 Signs the Jayhawks Are a Final Four Favorite

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    As long as an elite coach like Bill Self is leading Kansas, the Jayhawks always have a great shot at a Final Four run.

    Many questioned his paper-thin 2011-12 roster, a roster that returned only one player who averaged more than 15 minutes per game the previous season and none that averaged double digits in points.

    Tyshawn Taylor was the lone returning impact senior, and with more suspensions than leadership qualities, the identity-lacking Jayhawks did not appear on the verge of Self's second Final Four berth.

    A mid-December loss to Davidson only continued to fuel the critics.

    Not until a late-season nine-game winning streak did many begin to identify signs that Kansas could be a Final Four team. 

    A freshman phenom, lockdown defender and improved leadership at the halfway point of the 2012-13 season are only a few of the clear signs that KU is a favorite for a repeat Final Four trip.

Travis Releford

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    The constantly emerging role of fifth-year senior Travis Releford cannot be overstated.

    He is leading the team in minutes played (33.1 per game), field-goal percentage (61.7) and steals (1.4) while spearheading a No. 1-ranked Kansas defense. 

    That Releford-led defense is allowing a nation's best 34.9 percent shooting clip from the floor in keeping its last six opponents under 60 points, running their win streak to 18 games.

    "None of us are paying any attention to it. We don't sit around in the locker room and talk about it because we know it's a long season," Releford said regarding their winning streak. (h/t FoxNews.com)

Free-Throw Shooting

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    Yes, Monday's showing at the free-throw line was pathetic as Kansas shot better from the field (54.1 percent) than from the charity stripe (52.9).

    However, this year's team remains less than a percentage point behind the 2008-09 team as the best free-throw shooting squad under Self.

    If that pitiful 54 percent is repeated in the NCAA tournament, a hot shooting mid-major or well-coached veteran team will surely catch up, but as of now, the free-throw line remains an asset for the Jayhawks.



Ben McLemore's Offensive Versatility

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    Ben McLemore is the only reliable offensive player for Kansas right now.

    His agility, impressively quick decision-making and off-the-ball movement present nearly an impossible defensive matchup for an undersized small forward, physical shooting guard, zone scheme and everything in between.

    His team-leading free-throw percentage proves he can capitalize on aggressive lane penetration, evident from a second-half baseline drive against West Virginia. He managed to draw a foul from the help defender after ditching his near the three-point line. 

    On a play better suited for a seasoned upperclassman, he successfully halted the Mountaineers' run and further showcased his versatility.

Consistent Defense

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    West Virginia took 17 more shots than Kansas on Monday evening, but due to one-sided smothering defense, the Jayhawks shot 54.1 percent from the floor while the Mountaineers failed to hit 38 percent of their attempts.

    On another poor offensive night, this reliable defense undoubtedly won the game, like it has done over the last six games in not allowing the opposition to eclipse 60 points.

    Because KU shoots a high clip from the field itself at 48.3 percent, this consistent defense becomes an even larger weapon if it is able to limit the turnovers offensively and score 70 points each night. 

Improved Leadership

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    Upperclassmen Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Darnell Jackson were the primary leaders of the 2008 title team. Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson were the emotional leaders on last year's Final Four team.

    Many preseason critics questioned if all five of those players possessed sufficient leadership qualities but were quickly proven wrong.

    Once again, the Jayhawks had elite level talent this season, but were Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford ready to become the necessary leaders?

    While Johnson's transition to full-time point guard has remained uncomfortably bumpy (32 turnovers in his last eight games), his leadership qualities as a floor leader have greatly developed with improved communication.

    Releford has brought impressive composure, level-headedness and timely on-court performances to lead by example.