Bill Self is amazingly upbeat for a coach of a team coming off a disappointing ending to last season, a difficult summer and questions about whether its top recruit will be eligible to play.
Kansas was the clear No. 1 team going into last season and the Jayhawks did wind up going an impressive 33-3. However, they were shockingly bounced by Northern Iowa in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, then lost their top two scorers (Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry) and their top rebounder (Cole Aldrich).
"I don't think that very often you lose two lottery picks and your best player and you are supposed to get better but based on what I have seen so far and how hard they work in the offseason, I think this team has a chance to be very good," Self said. "We're athletic. We are not as deep as what we have been, especially inside, but we do have a team that I think can make plays you can't coach. I'm certainly looking forward to getting a chance to work with them. Hopefully by conference play, we can be a team that people have to contend with."
Kansas has five players returning who averaged at least 15 minutes a game last season, led by junior forward Marcus Morris, who averaged 12.8 points/6.1 rebounds/1.0 assists/24.7 minutes. He was also 56th in the nation in offensive rating (120.7), 62nd in effective field goal percentage (59.0), 94th in True Shooting Percentage (61.0) and 99th offensive rebounding percentage (12.8). Self has little doubt that Morris is ready to improve upon those numbers this season.
"To me, Marcus was our most consistent player last year," Morris said. "He may not have been our best player in every game, but he was probably our second- or third-best player at worst in most every game. I think it will be different this season because the target will be on him more so and he will be the defense's No. 1 option to stop, whereas in the past he probably had the luxury of defenses keying in on somebody else. He is ready. He is prepared. He has worked hard and is poised, in my opinion, to have a big, big junior year."
However, Morris will have a solid supporting cast of veterans that include his twin brother and junior center Markieff Morris (6.8/5.3/1.1/17.6), junior guard Tyshawn Taylor (7.2/2.4/3.4/23.1), senior guard Brady Morningstar (4.1/2.3/2.9/21.4) and senior guard Tyrel Reed (5.1/1.4/1.1/15.6).
"I don't think we have one guy that you will say is definitely the leader of this team," Self said. "It was just kind of a collection of guys. I think we will have to do it more by committee this year, which I'm fine with. The guys are holding each other accountable. I think it remains to be seen who will be that guy on the floor. Marcus will probably be as much as anybody else because basically he can play anywhere on the floor."
The most talented player on Kansas' roster is undoubtedly freshman guard Josh Selby, the highly regarded recruit from Baltimore who figures to be a one-and-done collegian. While the NCAA has cleared Selby from an academic standpoint, he still has not been ruled eligible to play while it investigates the possibility that he took money from an adviser while in high school. Selby, though, has been able to practice with the team.
"He is a terrific talent, he wants to be in school and he is doing great in school," Self said. "He has totally bought into what we are trying to do. He has been nothing but an asset since he has been here."
Kansas also figures to play faster if Selby is running the offense because of the loss of space-eating big Aldrich. The Jayhawks weren't slow last year--their adjusted tempo of 68.6 ranked 99th among Division I teams. However, they have looked like they have been playing in a new gear at practice.
“Sometimes we think guys are working hard just because they are faster than others. I think this team does work,” Self said. “We’ve had a collection of guys that are good workers since we’ve been here. This ranks with as good a working team as we’ve had."
UCLA Speeding Things Up?
Kansas isn't the only tradition-rich program that wants to play faster this season. UCLA played to a 65.6 adjusted tempo, which was 244th in the country, while finishing 14-18 last season.
"We really put pressure on the defense and get early looks." coach Ben Howland said. "It's hard to push it on made shots but we're trying to do that and definitely on missed shots."
Howland says his players will have to commit to playing stronger defense in order for the tempo to increase. UCLA allowed a 50.6 effective field goal percentage that season. Furthermore, the players will have to commit to wanting to play fast.
"They have to want to push it," Howland said. "It's hard work to run it every time."
Another area in which UCLA needs improvement is long-range shooting as it was 239th in the country last season in three-point shooting percentage with a 32.5 mark. That helped negate the Bruins being fourth in two-pointers at 54.7 percent. Thus, Howland is hoping freshman shooting guard Tyler Lamb can make an immediate impact after a standout high school career at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, California.
"Tyler Lamb is the most ready of the new freshmen to play defense, and that's from his high school background," Howland said. "He's really competitive and tough."
Zeller's Goal: Stay on the Floor
It is easy to call North Carolina's Tyler Zeller injury prone. The junior center missed 33 of the Tar Heels' 75 games in his first two seasons, suffering a broken wrist as a freshman and a stress fracture in his right foot as a sophomore. However, Zeller bristles at the suggestion.
"I was never injured in high school,” Zeller said. “I missed one practice and it was for a flu shot, and I don’t really know why I couldn’t practice that day. I had to go tell my coach, and he made fun of me all day.”
Yet Zeller has missed plenty of time, starting with the second game of his college career when he was fouled hard by Kentucky's Ramon Harris while going in for a dunk.
“Obviously, freshman year was a freak accident,” he said. “I don’t think I could have avoided that other than shooting a layup and getting blocked or something like that. Then last year, the stress fracture, basically you get a stress fracture by overworking, and your muscle gets strained, then you break a bone.”
North Carolina needs Zeller (9.3/4.6/0.3/17.3) to stay healthy this season, though. The Tar Heels' veteran frontcourt depth beyond Zeller consists of sophomore John Henson (5.7/4.4/0.9/15.8) and Justin Knox, a graduate student transfer from Alabama.
Kennesaw State Sets Sights on A-Sun Title
The Atlantic Sun was one of the most competitive conferences in the nation last season as four teams tied for the regular-season title and a fifth, East Tennessee State, won the conference tournament.
Though it was 13-20 last season, Kennesaw State believes it can be competitive as it beat top-seeded Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun tournament and brings seven new players into the program to go with four starters. The top returnee is sophomore forward Markeith Cummings, who has a chance to blossom into one of the better low-major players in the nation after putting together a 17.4/6.1/2.1/34.0 line as a freshman. Cummings also shined on Kennesaw State's five-game exhibition tour in Canada over the summer, averaging 20 points a game.
"We need to take some heat off Markeith," coach Tony Ingle said. "We asked a lot of that young man last season. He was adjusting to Division I basketball and facing double- and triple-teams. We're trying to get some other guys some opportunities."
The Owls' other three returning starters are junior guard Spencer Dixon (8.6/3.1/2.9/29.1), sophomore forward LaDaris Green (6.8/7.9/1.0/24.0) and senior forward Matt Heramb (4.3/3.4/1.7/19.9).
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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