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Kansas Basketball Season Preview: Jayhawks Look to Ride No. 1 Ranking to Title

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Kansas Basketball Season Preview: Jayhawks Look to Ride No. 1 Ranking to Title
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The 2009-2010 college basketball season can officially start being discussed now that the first batch of preseason rankings are available.

It came as no surprise that Kansas sits atop the preseason coaches' poll.

 

A little background

The 2004-2005 season was the last time the Jayhawks began the season as the nation's top team—perhaps a bad omen for this year, as the 2004-05 season rivals only the 1996-97 season as the most disappointing season in Kansas basketball history.

In '96-97 Kansas was absolutely stacked with talent. Leading that group was Paul Pierce, who has nearly cemented himself as a pro Hall of Famer. In '04-05 the team had Wayne Simien (a Wooden Award finalist that year) as well as guards Aaron Miles and Keith Langford. All three had Final Four experience.

In '96-97 KU made its way through the schedule with ease for the most part. Most people had them as the favorite to win the national title, but a crushing defeat (emotionally) at the hands of Arizona in the Sweet 16 dashed the hopes and dreams of Kansas fans.

In '04-05, KU got off to a fast start. A tough defeat to Villanova on the road seemed to expose the team, which went on to stumble into the tournament with absolutely zero momentum. If we know anything about college basketball, it's that you need to be flying going into the tournament.

KU met Bucknell out of the Patriot League. Kansas came out flat, and the entire team showed signs of confusion. Throughout that season and especially towards the end, the discontent of Roy Williams' recruits towards Bill Self was very evident.

Self didn't seem to have them motivated to play Bucknell. Simien's turnaround 12-footer just inside the free throw line hit the rim twice and bounced out, which bounced Kansas out of the tournament in the first round.

Once Self was able to coach a team that was free of Williams guys, he has yet to disappoint KU fans. He's taken KU to an Elite Eight and won the National Title, and the team narrowly fell short of an Elite Eight appearance last year.

 

No. 1 for a reason, or several

Everyone with the exception of fan favorite Matt Kleinmann returns to the squad this year. A star-studded recruitment class, headlined by ESPNU No. 1 recruit Xavier Henry, joins an already solid group of players.

KU has unimaginable depth this year—a characteristic that bodes well for a title run (see North Carolina last year). Self says he'd like to go nine, even 10 deep. One can't comment on that until we actually see the team in action.

Did I mention that KU returns one of the best, if not the nation's best guard in Sherron Collins, and arguably the nation's most consistent big man, Cole Aldrich? Their leadership and championship experience alone could garner KU the top preseason spot.

A total of four players remain from the 2008 Championship team: Aldrich, Collins, Brady Morningstar, and Tyrell Reed. Their experience will be close to priceless when KU gets to the later rounds of the tournament.

Finally, KU coach Bill Self has cemented himself as one of the nation's finest coaches. While he may not be the offensive genius Roy Williams is or have the ability to teach rugged basketball like Tom Izzo, he gets his guys to commit to playing stingy defense, which helps his main philosophy of stealing extra possessions.

He recruits guards not necessarily for their scoring or shooting prowess. Instead he recruits tough-nosed guards committed to playing opportunistic defense, who love to get steals as much as they like to score.

Should Self get his second national title in three years, I don't know how Kansas fans can't vault him to the always debated "best coach in our history" status.

 

Big questions will demand thorough answers

The current story enveloping the Kansas men's basketball team right now has nothing to do with basketball at all. Instead the focus has been on the off-court antics of some of its major players.

Guard Tyshawn Taylor got into a disagreement with members of the Kansas football team over what else? A female.

Two altercations ensued. The first took place outside of Jayhawker towers (the residence buildings that house nearly all of KU's student athletes) and the other at the center of KU's campus.

The second was perhaps more troubling as nearly every member of the basketball team was involved, as well as an equal number of the football team.

Football coach Mark Mangino and Coach Self forced both teams to a truce, reiterating the fact that all of them had "Kansas" on the front of their jerseys and as such needed to be a cohesive unit.

Not two weeks later, Morningstar was arrested on suspicion of driving drunk. He was quickly suspended for the entire first semester by Coach Self.

These off-court antics have led most major college basketball writers, critics, and analysts to question whether or not the KU basketball team will be able to weather the storm.

Will the distractions be a problem as KU gets ready to begin its season? I doubt it; this team knows the expectations that come before it for this season, and I believe that come Nov. 13, when Kansas begins its regular season against Hofstra, all attention will be focused on meeting those lofty expectations.

While most of the questions have been off-court-to-on-court related, some questions about the season remain.

Will KU be able to manage their tough non-conference schedule?

Kansas has one of, if not the toughest non-conference schedule in America. It will play Memphis on a neutral court in just its second regular season game. Road trips to Pauley Pavilion to face UCLA, Knoxville to take on Bruce Pearl's determined Vols squad, and a trip to Philadelphia to take on Temple linger in December and January.

KU will also host two conference title contenders and preseason top 15 teams in Cal (Pac-10) and Michigan (Big Ten) in back-to-back games in mid-December.

Believe it or not, I think the two home games against Cal and Michigan will be the toughest of the non-conference schedules.

UCLA is in a down year, and while Tennessee and Temple will be tough on the road, KU's depth alone should help them prevail.

Another question that has been asked is, how will Bill Self keep everyone happy?

Ten deep? That may be the case, but guys like the Morris twins, who have lost weight and gained a bunch of muscle, will be competing against newcomers like Thomas Robinson, a recruit, and Jeff Withey, a transfer from Arizona.

The team also has 12 guards listed as eligible. Normally KU plays with three. It will be very interesting to see how minutes are split up amongst the guards, especially for that third guard position.

Finally, and perhaps the biggest question: How will KU respond to the expectations this season has brought upon them?

I highlighted (or perhaps lowlighted) the past two seasons with KU as the preseason No. 1. This year is much different; the team is incredibly deep. The talent level top to bottom would make just about any college basketball fan drool. Expectations should be met.

 

Finally, the meat: Predictions

I will come out right away and say that there is no reason this team won't win the National Championship on that final Monday in April in a town called Indianapolis.

I think the tough non-conference schedule may yield a couple of losses, mainly due to the fact that there are a lot of new faces on this team that will be seeing significant playing time.

That said, it will take a while for this team to become the well-oiled machine I expect it to be once it gets into the grunt of its conference schedule.

I see the Jayhawks going 13-2 in their non-conference schedule and 14-2 in their conference schedule, ultimately sharing the Big 12 regular season title with Texas. I'd then expect KU to once again (for the fourth time in five years) clip Texas in the Big 12 tournament title game en route to the second No. 1 seed in the tournament.

Obviously from there anything can happen, but I really feel like the depth this team has will leave it humming in March. A potential rematch with North Carolina in the Final Four will be in the cards, and I think KU clips Michigan State in the final 73-65.

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