Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Big 12 Basketball Preview: Part V

King In the Castle Division

"Oh well, King in the Castle, King in the Castle, I have a chair! Go do dis, go do dis, King in the Castle."So if you're planning on reading this when you make toilet, I would suggest printing it out - otherwise you'll burn your crotch, cause it's going to be bottomless. In keeping with yesterday's theme, we have climbed the final rungs on the ladder to the Kings of the Castle, AKA, the…

1. Kansas Jayhawks
That's right, it's business time. And that means that Kansas will try and win their 51st conference championship in 101 years of conference affiliation. If they accomplish this feat, it will be their fourth consecutive title and 6th in the last 7 years. To put that in perspective, the Jayhawks' "rivals," Kansas State and Methzouri have combined for 32, none of which have come since 1994 when Methzou sandwiched one in between 7 Kansas championships (winning it in '91,'92,'93,'95,'96,'97 & '98). Perhaps, this is part of the problem. Maybe if they were to join forces they could put an end to this futility and compete once in a while. But for the time being, it looks like the Crimson and Blue will continue to dominate the conference.

Unfortunately, that conference domination has not led to nearly as many national championships as Jayhawk fans would hope. Had Phog Allen not been forced to retire due to his age, this number would obviously be larger, but it is what it is and I digress. Their last one came courtesy of (now assistant coach) Danny and the Miracles in 1988. They have four in all and have high hopes of honoring the 20th anniversary of their last one by adding a fifth on April 7, 2008.

Thus far, their out of conference games have gone extremely well. That is not to say the Jayhawks have always played well, but they are currently 9-0 and have 2 very good wins. Their biggest "resume win" to date is over USC. Not only does USC have one of the ten most talented rosters in the country, but also the game was played on the road in the Galen Center. The game was extremely ugly and the first ten minutes were pretty much unbearable, but it was the type of win that gets a team a Number 1 seed come Selection Sunday.Their second best win thus far came at home, amidst the Methzou hangover, over another very talented Pac 10 team in Arizona. This game was equally frustrating as the Jayhawks had a sizeable advantage early and let Arizona come back and actually lead a good portion of the second half before finally forcing overtime, where the Jayhawks took over. But again, it was a win in a game they didn't play well against a good team. It would also be foolish to not point out that Kansas has played this schedule at much less than full strength. Brandon Rush missed the first few games as he was recovering from offseason ACL surgery and he is still not near 100%. Sherron Collins also missed all but the first two games, before returning to play a very small role against DePaul last Saturday.

Between now and the conference season, Kansas has two more tough games, both on the road in the ACC. Next Tuesday they will play @ Georgia Tech. A couple of weeks later and two days removed from the Orange Bowl, they will play @ Boston College. Georgia Tech is a less than impressive 4-4, but has played a decent schedule. Oddly enough, though, they have only played 1 true home game and don't have any games between Dec. 5 and next Tuesday (13 days). Kansas will without a doubt be the better team, but Tech is very talented and came within a couple of points of beating Indiana in Assembly Hall. Boston College, as usual, is overachieving and could be out for revenge. After being humiliated by the Jayhawks last year in Allen, BC will be anxious to return the favor. Now, they are 7-1 with the loss coming to Providence and the "big" win coming at Maryland. Why they have already played a random conference game and won't do so again until Jan. 12th, I have no idea. They do have one common opponent, Sexy Rexy's FAU team. Kansas won by 40, BC by 6. Again, the Jayhawks are vastly superior, but there is a reason that road wins are so highly valued. Aside from those two, Kansas plays Ohio (@ Sprint Center), Miami (OH), Yale and Loyola (Md.), so if they win the two on the road and avoid an Oral Robertsesque slip, they should enter the conference at 15-0.

I understand that you don't "know" which teams are going to be good, especially years in advance, but it's pretty retarded that there is no way to rebalance these schedules every so often. After having most of their tough games at home last year, Kansas will now have to win those tougher games on the road. Last year, they breezed through the north at a 10-0 clip with only a couple of close games along the way. The north is similarly inferior this year, though maybe not as much so. Kansas State now has Michael Beasley, but then again they have Frank Martin too. As has been publicized, Kansas has not lost in Manhattan since 1983 and has never lost in Bramlage Coliseum. One would think that streak has to end at some point, and the Bease is guaranteeing that it will be this year. Then again, Huggy Bear issued the same guarantee last year, before falling short and ultimately, making his escape. Also, I'm thinking that I may have slightly underrated Methzou in my preview and even if I didn't, obviously anything can happen in that game.All in all though, I would be surprised if they have too much trouble with this half and the biggest cause for concern is a letdown due to concentrating a lot of their efforts on traversing a much tougher slate down south.

I doubt they will have any trouble with their south opponents that come to the Fieldhouse, as those teams are Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma. On the road could be a different story, with them having to travel to Texas, A&M, and Oklahoma State, teams I predicted to finish 2nd, 3rd and 5th. Winning all three would be fantastic, but even taking 2 would be great and I think, necessary. Assuming they lose one game they shouldn't and one of these tough ones from the south, I don't think a repeat of their 14-2 performance a year ago would be too surprising.

For argument's sake, let's even be bearish and say they lose a third in there somewhere. If they combine that with their non conference resume - which could well be 15-0 with a road win in the Pac 10, 2 in the ACC and also home W's against the Big East and Pac 10 – they should be in prime position for a repeat #1 seed. Then again, as the selection committee proved last year, they put a lot of stock into conference tournaments and as they've proven nearly every year, they really don't know what the hell they're doing. Whatever seed they end up with, let's just hope that they are first assigned to the Omaha pod, leading to the Houston regional and culminating in San Antonio at the Final Four.

Notable Players: The best thing about this team is balance. And the worst team about this team is balance. Nearly everyone has the ability to take over a game, but sometimes nobody steps to the vanguard. Right now they have five guys averaging in double figures and three more at either 7 or 8 per.

On the inside, Darrell Arthur is leading the way at 14, while also grabbing just over 5 boards. Watching him, the latter is hard to believe and needs to improve. The scoring can probably stay right where it is, but for Kansas to accomplish their ultimate goal this year, he needs to be more consistent. This will happen if he stays near the basket, doesn't rush his shot and plays hard. Darnell Jackson has been both the biggest surprise and the most fun player to watch in this young season. The effort has always been there, but the points rarely accompanied. He has stolen the starting job from Sasha Kaun and made the most of his time, averaging over 11 points and 7 rebounds. He probably has less raw ability than at least 7 other players, but he has been the most valuable to date. Sasha Kaun (8, 4) has been very disappointing so far, but had a bit of a coming-out party last Saturday. After starting the game similar to the previous 8, he returned later to score 15 points and grab 5 boards. If he could do this with any consistency, this team gets scary good. And lastly, freshman Cole Aldrich has looked promising. He hasn't really played many big minutes yet, but he has shown great hands offensively, the ability to rebound in traffic and to block some shots. What he hasn't shown is the ability to defend without fouling against good competition. If this improves, nobody in the country will have a better 4th big (and maybe don't as it is).

On the perimeter, Sherron Collins is technically leading the scoring at 13, but he has really only played in 2+ games. He's also averaging 2 rebounds and 4 assists. It could easily be argued that his knee was the reason for Kansas' losing last year. When healthy, he was as good as anyone on the roster and could not be kept out of the lane. When he regains his form, this team will start to really reach its potential. Mario Chalmers (12, 4, & 5) has been the true catalyst of this team and was within reach of a quadruple double his last time out when he had 12 points, 9 boards, 7 assists and 7 steals. He is the best player in the country at anticipating the passing lanes, and he's not too bad on the offensive end either. Brandon Rush is the face of the team nationally and is coming off ACL surgery over the summer. So far, he has looked good but not great. He is averaging 11 and 4 on the year and in back to back games, against Arizona and FAU he scored 17 points. But when you watch him, you know he's not where he wants to be. Everyone says he's close to being at 100%, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out. In his, and Sherron's absence, Rodrick Stewart has contributed nicely. For the year, he is averaging 7, 3 and 3, far more than anyone could have expected. He is also a good defender, bringing a ton of athleticism and slashing ability to the team. He looks more and more comfortable each game and though his minutes are sure to dwindle as the injuries subside, this experience will prove very valuable down the road. Freshmen Tyrel Reed and Conner Teehan have also shown the ability to contribute when called upon. Reed has gotten more minutes and is more complete, but Teehan looks every bit the shooter he was touted to be, having kocked down 9 of 12 threes on the year. And last but not least, senior Russell Robinson is exactly what he was expected to be. he started off the year on fire from deep and if that returns, he could take his game and this team to another level. But if not, we absolutely know he will provide extremely good defense, a few points (7+ now), some rebounds (2+) and of course some assists (4+) in running the offense.

This team has all of the components of one that can cut down the nets in San Antonio. And nobody will be surprised if they are able to do so. There are no more than 4 teams in the country that can match their ability and none that have more. However, that was also the case last year when they missed 20+ layups and fell in the Elite Eight. This team looks much more weathered, hungry, and mature, but only time will tell. Rock Chalk!

**Below is a random rant I wanted to get off my chest and probably has no actual validity, so feel free to either not read it, disregard it after you do, or call me out on it. But just know that I'm not even sure I believe it and don't say I didn't warn you. I spend way too much time thinking about Kansas sports and this has been occupying some space lately and causing an unwanted tickle in my anus, so I'm hoping "saying" it rectifies the problem.**

I think this is a make or break year for the Jayhawks. Obviously it's widely known that anything short of a Final Four would be a disappointment, but I think it would be even more than that. I think this team badly needs to either win the whole thing or at least reach San Antonio for a couple of reasons.

1. Bill Self has always been touted as a great recruiter, and he has yet to disappoint. Tyrel Reed and Cole Aldrich will be great. But they aren't Darrell Arthur and Sherron Collins. Mario Little, Travis Releford, the Morriss twins and Quintrell look to be solid. But they aren't Rush, Chalmers, Julian or (ugh) Micah Downs. Obviously Kansas's success is not entirely forgotten, but just for reference, no one he will ever recruit was alive in 1988 (plenty were obviously alive in '91,'93,'01 and '03, but that was with Huckleberry). I know it sounds dramatic and whiny, but to keep getting top tier talent, I think he needs to get over the hump this year.

2. Obviously you never know what's going to happen come March, but I don't see a national title team in the near future if it doesn't happen in April. Considering that after this year, Russell, Sasha, Darnell and Rodrick will graduate. And that it is a near certainty that Brandon and Darrell will leave for the NBA. And that it is entirely possible that Mario and Sherron could join them, next year could be a bit different. Then again, he could ink the Henry's and all of this could go up in smoke.

3. I don't hate or resent Roy Williams. But it was pretty tough to watch him win a national championship in his second year at UNC. And though they lack consistent outside shooting, the "experts" say they're the favorite this year. Furthermore, Huck is having NO trouble recruiting there. And I just can't take watching him win again without getting a taste of it myself, so I have convinced myself that the time is now. Rock Chalk!

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