LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas kicked off its season on Friday night with Late Night in the Phog. The Midnight Madness events are all about impressing recruits these days, and as Bill Self kicked off the festivities doing just that, there was a symbolic turning of the page for the Jayhawks.
Self made his entrance in a replica sport coat to the one Andrew Wiggins wore on NBA draft night. It was meant to be a joke, but there was a marketing play at work as well. It allowed Self to talk about what a moment it was for the program to have the No. 1 pick in the draft. It was a chance to remind the recruits sitting behind KU's bench that he just had the "it" player in college basketball and his program can churn out top picks just like Kentucky's.
But as important as Wiggins was to the program, his presence didn't even get Kansas out of the first weekend of the tournament. The lasting memory for most Kansas fans of the 2013-14 season will be "what could have been" had Joel Embiid played in the NCAA tournament.
As well as Self has recruited wings—and this year's team is stacked at that spot—Kansas is a big man's program and the success of this year's team could very well be defined by a big fella: Cliff Alexander.
When Self met with the media on Friday night after the festivities, he opened talking about the jacket and then it was time to talk about what we'd just seen, and that was the potential of Alexander.
The freshman big man scored 12 points in a 20-minute scrimmage and showed how much a few months at Kansas has already paid off.
Self has had wings like Wiggins succeed in his program, but what he has always done best is develop big guys. Of the 18 players drafted since Self arrived at Kansas, 11 have been post players. Embiid may have been the No. 1 pick if not for injury concerns. Self helped turn the Morris twins into lottery picks and Thomas Robinson went from a 2.5-points-per-game scorer as a freshman to a first-team All-American as a junior.
Robinson is the one former Kansas big guy who Alexander has been compared to the most. Like Robinson when he got to KU, Alexander is a beast whose post game is still a bit on the raw side. He has made a name for himself with a motor and ability to overpower guys his own age.
As Robinson found out early in his career, simply overpowering guys will get you only so far, and that was the message Alexander got as soon as he arrived at Kansas.
"I think the thing about it is with Cliff is he's never played against length, and then when he got here he realized it's hard to score over length so you need to come up with something to score over length," Self said. "He's going to be a good offensive player. He's not quite there yet, but he has a soft touch, naturally a soft touch. And he goes after the ball."
I watched Alexander closely in the spring during the Jordan Brand Classic practices, and it was obvious that he was trying to learn how to score with his back to the basket. There seemed to be a lot of thought going into each move, and that kind of slowed him down.
Based off how he played on Friday night, it looks like he is getting into his moves quicker and he has a go-to move he trusts. Two of his baskets came off a smooth righty jump hook over his left shoulder.
"I've been working on it since I stepped foot on campus," Alexander said. "Coach told me that's got to be my go-to move, so that's what I've been making."
Alexander could be a long shot to lead this team in scoring. Sophomore Wayne Selden looks much more explosive after offseason knee surgery—he led all scorers with 17 points on Friday—and junior forward Perry Ellis is a much more natural scorer. But for the Jayhawks to reach their ceiling they'll likely need Alexander to become a real force.
Simply look at how good the Jayhawks were last year when Embiid scored. They were 8-0 when Embiid scored 14 or more points, and the offense was incredibly efficient when he was heavily involved.
|Joel Embiid's Best Games at KU|
|Opponent||Embiid's point total||Result||KU's off. efficiency|
Kansas went 3-3 down the stretch without Embiid, and in the loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament, the lack of a post presence was indeed missing. The Jayhawks scored only one basket on a post-up the entire game.
If this March goes better, chances are Alexander will be heavily involved.
Can John Calipari's Platoon at Kentucky Really Work?
Friday was also the first opportunity to see Kentucky with a healthy roster and John Calipari's experiment with a platooning lineup. Calipari took his made-for-recruiting NBA combine to the ESPNU airwaves, and the telecast ended with a five-on-five scrimmage.
Calipari said on the broadcast that he plans on subbing five guys for five guys to give his top 10 guys close to equal playing time. This is how UK played in the Bahamas, but at that time, both Trey Lyles and Willie Cauley-Stein were injured.
Now with all 10 available, we got an idea of how Calipari will form his two lineups. Here were the two starting fives on Friday:
Blue Team: Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Trey Lyles, Marcus Lee, Karl Towns
White Team: Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein
One thing jumped out at me right away, and that was trying to use Lyles at small forward. When he's matching up against someone like Poythress, it might just work. But how many wings struggle to shoot outside and are 6'8"? Very few.
Lyles moves well for a big guy, but he doesn't have the kind of quickness to keep up with a 6'5" wing who can hit the three and is as quick as a guard. It's really hard to get comfortable on the perimeter when you've been guarding big guys in the paint your entire life. It's a stretch to even put Poythress at the three, but he at least is more versatile on the defensive end.
The obstacles don't stop there either. On the offensive end, Lyles was put in spots where he's not comfortable in an attempt to try to space the floor, and not surprisingly the blue team got off to a really slow start on Friday.
I'm skeptical that Calipari will stick with this system. He's going to give his team the best chance to win, and the Wildcats are going to be a better team with more traditional lineups (three perimeter players and two bigs) on the floor.
Will he try to get all 10 minutes? Sure. But eventually, two or three guys are going to see their minutes decline because it's really hard to stretch a rotation past eight.
Deepest Teams in the Country
Both Calipari and Self will spend the first couple months of the season figuring out their rotations. Both programs almost have too much talent, a problem many coaches would love to have.
Let's take a look at the five deepest rosters in the country.
1. Kentucky: The top 10 could all end up in the NBA someday. Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis are solid options off the bench who would likely play around 20 minutes per game at most major programs.
2. Kansas: Self could also go 12 deep and his 12th man is probably transfer Hunter Mickelson, who started 20 games for Arkansas as a sophomore. The Jayhawks are especially deep on the wing. Freshman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, who one coach told Bleacher Report will end up a lottery pick, will come off the bench.
3. Gonzaga: The Zags return three starters and Kyle Dranginis, who started eight games last season. They add three transfers (Kyle Wiltjer from Kentucky, Byron Wesley from USC and Eric McClellan from Vanderbilt) who were all double-digit scorers at their previous school. Freshman point guard Josh Perkins was a top-100 recruit, and freshman Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas Sabonis, is a top European prospect. Add in former Louisville forward Angel Nunez and the Zags are a legit 10 deep.
4. Duke: The Blue Devils match Kentucky with nine former McDonald's All-Americans, and sophomore Semi Ojeleye was a consensus top-50 recruit.
5. North Carolina: The Heels return nine players who were part of the rotation last year, add three McDonald's All-American freshmen and Stilman White, who was the backup point guard in 2011-12, returns from a Mormon mission.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.