Sunday, December 30, 2012

Grading the Jayhawks

Kansas has one final non-conference game, against Temple at home, and then begins defense of its Big 12 conference championship, seeking an unprecedented ninth straight league title.  Oklahoma State will provide stout competition but the stage is set for yet another conference championship for the Jayhawks.

Let's take a look at how these Jayhawks have graded out as we prepare for conference play.

Overall:  It's hard to complain about a 11-1 record to date and a likely top five ranking for the coming week.  Highlight:  A road win over Ohio State.  Lowlight:  A Champions Classic loss to Michigan State where KU could not hold a lead down the stretch.  Grade:  A-.

Elijah Johnson:  Johnson started slow and had a pretty horrid first half against Ohio State.  Overall, though, let's give E.J. the benefit of the doubt as he battled some early-season health issues and also had to adjust to being the point guard and the leader of this team.  He's grown comfortable in both roles, and the emergence of Nadir Tharpe as a very capable PG back-up will help Johnson immensely.  Grade:  B.

Travis Releford:  Early on, Jayhawk fans had to wonder what was up with Releford given the number of turnovers and bonehead plays by this fifth-year senior.  He then played two games in the CBE Classic at Sprint Center, was named MVP, and hasn't looked back.  Releford is Kansas' best on-ball defender, a tremendous finisher, and can score, particularly when needed most.  One could make the case that T-Rel is KU's season MVP to date.  Grade:  A.

Jeff Withey:  Is this the same Jeff Withey who struggled in the past against smaller teams and appeared apathetic at times on the court?  Withey has parlayed his tremendous 2012 second-half-of-the-season and NCAA Tournament into vying for national defensive player-of-the-year honors in 2012-2013.  Withey anchors what has become a suffocating Kansas defense through his shot-blocking ability and altering presence in the paint.  Grade:  A-.

Kevin Young:  Let's see a show of hands by KU fans--who thought that Young would start at the beginning of the season but would quickly give way to either Perry Ellis or Jamari Traylor as the four man in the Kansas lineup?  Yep, pretty much all of you, right?  Young is the energy guy for KU and has more impact on a game than any other non-scoring starter in a top ten program in America.  Grade:  A.

Ben McLemore:  Did anyone other than Bill Self see this coming?  McLemore was touted as a good player but no one forecast his current standing as a top five pick on NBA draft boards.  Benny Mac is still very much learning the game and his potential impact on a team led by four seniors but improvement, and learning, happens with each game.  If he continues to progress, McLemore will leave KU at the end of this season and will become the best Kansas pro since Paul Pierce.  Grade:  A.

Bench:  What's to like--the emergence of Tharpe, Ellis' double-double against American last night, the motor of Traylor, and the sweet-shooting potential of Andrew White III.  What's not to like--to date, there has been no real consistency from Kansas' bench, save for Tharpe's performance over the past three games.  The only under-performing area of the team to date is the play of the seventh, eighth and ninth guys off of the bench--the potential is there but the game-to-game consistency is not.  Grade:  B-.

Coaching:  It feels like Bill Self has this team right where he wants them--10 and 1 at the break with two weeks of practice focus and seniors who finally seem to be leading the youngsters out on the court.  This team will not be one of Self's toughest, but it could be one of his smartest.  Self knows that this squad will be disadvantaged by playing in a league that, top to bottom, is weaker than normal.  He'll have to pull different levers to keep the toughness quotient--both physical and mental--dialed up for a hoped-for deep run in March/April.  Grade:  A-.

Schedule:  Temple comes to Allen Fieldhouse on January 6, followed by Iowa State on January 9 in the conference opener.  Key January games--Baylor on January 14; at Texas, January 19; at Kansas State, January 22.

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