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August 6, 2012
A New Breed of Jayhawk
KU Goes Overseas

by C.J. Moore


On Sunday, the Kansas Jayhawks boarded a plane headed to Zurich, Switzerland, for a summer trip overseas, which the NCAA allows once every four years. The team will play two games against the Swiss national team, then travel to Paris for two games against AMW Team France, a group of A and B French professionals.

This trip could not come at a better time. Self has eight freshmen on scholarship and is trying to replace Big 12 player of the year Thomas Robinson and all-league point guard Tyshawn Taylor.

For proof of the benefits of such a trip, Self points to Jeff Withey. A year ago KU's seven-footer was a project, and projects rarely start at Kansas. But Self was going to be forced to go with Withey because his options were limited once the Morris twins had left early for the NBA. Withey had played 207 minutes and scored 80 points in his first two seasons in Lawrence.

"Withey hadn't played a lick and we sent him overseas with the charity team," Self said, speaking of Withey's trip with Athletes in Action in the summer of 2011 "It's amazing to me how much his confidence shot up by just seeing the ball go through the hole, and hopefully this will do the same for these guys."

On Saturday the Jayhawks scrimmaged in front of the media in preparation for their trip, and it was the first look at Withey as the best player on the court. (More on that later.) It was also a chance to see Robinson's replacement, freshman Perry Ellis, uber-hyped redshirt freshman guard Ben McLemore, and the Jayhawks' likely sixth man, sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe.

The Europe trip is big for these four players in particular, who will play the majority of the minutes in 2012-13 along with senior guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. Let's take a look at each player now that Saturday's scrimmage is in the books.

Perry Ellis: Robinson's replacement
Ellis, a 6-8 forward, was a McDonald's All-American and ranked No. 24 by Rivals.com in the 2012 class. He will most likely start alongside Withey.

To start, Ellis is not Thomas Robinson. He has good rebounding instincts, but he doesn't crave rebounds the way Robinson did on his way toward leading the nation in defensive rebounding percentage. He does not have the strength or explosion of a Robinson, but his game is smooth and he will be a nice complement to Withey.

Ellis started the scrimmage by making the first two baskets for the starters. He sealed his man in the post on his first bucket and finished a layup on his second off a nice pass from Withey. Self loves a big man who knows how to seal his man in the paint, and Ellis did a really nice job of using his body and giving KU's guards an easy angle to enter the ball.

The freshman will also stretch the floor. He has range out to the three-point line and, and he knocked down back-to-back 15-footers from the baseline. Withey will see the double-teams that came Robinson's way last year, and Ellis should be able to capitalize when teams double with two posts. He's still figuring out the offense and where he belongs, so the trip to Europe should help his progression.

Ben McLemore: The next big thing
Robinson was forced to defend perimeter players last year during KU's round of 32 win against Purdue, and he credited McLemore for preparing him for that challenge.

"Guarding him, you won't know until next year, but you'll know how good of defense I can play once you see him play," Robinson said at the time. Self has said McLemore was the best pro prospect on the team last year and that included Robinson.

McLemore only played one quarter Saturday because of a hamstring injury that ended his day -- he said he would be able to play this week -- but in that time, he showed some glimpses of what the hype is all about. He's from St. Louis and he reminds me of fellow St. Louis product Bradley Beal. Like Beal, McLemore's jumper is picture-perfect. Like Beal, McLemore's potential seems to be untapped.

"Ben is good offensively," Self said. "He can do a lot of things. He's so athletic. But right now he's more a shooter and an athlete than really knowing how to plug himself in and use his athletic ability. He's going to be a nice player."

McLemore redshirted last season because he wasn't able to qualify, and so after not playing a game for over a year, this trip will be key to get him used to playing with KU's starters.

Self ran a lot of ball screens on Saturday, even more so than usual, and the four games overseas will be a chance for McLemore to develop that part of his game so he can score in more ways than just spotting up behind the three-point line.

Naadir Tharpe: True point guard
Tharpe was KU's most impressive guard during the scrimmage. That came as a surprise, as last season Tharpe played just 11 percent of KU's available minutes -- and during those minutes his responsibility was to stay out of the way.

"That year that I had where I really didn't have a chance to play and just basically learned the system," Tharpe said. "I had a chance to be behind guys that have been here for awhile, so they taught me the ropes and now I'm here my sophomore year and I know what's going on and [I'm] ready to play."

Tharpe looked like it on Saturday. He was crafty in the open court, often hiding behind a big man as he brought the ball up the court and then sneaking to the rim for a layup. He also distributed the ball well, committing only one turnover in the scrimmage and making a couple outside shots.

"You saw him on his best day," Self said. "Naadir has been hot and cold, to say the least, but today he was much better. He's had a problem passing the ball all over the place, but (Saturday) he scrimmaged pretty well. He's fast. He can make a shot. It'd be nice if he can settle in as a backup point guard, but I really don't know yet because he hasn't been very consistent so far."

Self's other option is freshman Rio Adams, who struggled on Saturday and must learn the system. Tharpe has a chance to join other KU guards in recent memory -- Johnson, Releford, Brady Morningstar and Russell Robinson -- who didn't play much as freshmen and then became key players later in their careers.

Johnson is a true combo guard and probably better off the ball, so Tharpe has a chance to earn a spot in Europe. He got off to a great start on Saturday.

Jeff Withey: The new BMOC
On Saturday Ellis had the ball on the left block, and he made a beautiful spin move around Withey. He went underneath the basket to try to fend off Withey and attempted a reverse layup. Withey stayed attached to his hip and pinned the ball against the glass.

The freshman came off the court immediately following the play, and Self told him he had made a great move and not to worry about the fact that it got blocked.

Ellis, my man, Self should have said, you will not go against a better defensive big man this season. Withey already led the country in block percentage (15.3) last year, and he has a great chance to repeat. He blocked every shot in his vicinity on Saturday.

Early in the season last year, opposing big man could dictate where they wanted the ball against Withey. He could be moved. Late in the year, he was establishing his position on defense and not getting pushed off his spot. Kentucky's Anthony Davis was brilliant in the championship game defensively, but so was Withey; he held Davis to six points on 1-of-10 shooting.

It was no shocker that Withey dominated the defensive end on Saturday, but what might have caught some media off guard was his development offensively. Withey was no slouch last season, averaging nine points a game, but all of his offense was created by others. He rarely scored over a defender from the post.

Withey showed nice foot work and balance during the scrimmage. When he wasn't finishing alley-oops, he ended every move over his right shoulder, finishing with his left hand.

"Coach Self definitely wants me to work on my left hand," Withey said, "and that's something I want to get down and be automatic." It was. He made almost every shot.

Withey is no longer the Big Project. He's the reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year and it's now his time to be the star post player for the Jayhawks.

"I've put in a lot of work just trying to get more of a scorer's mentality," he said.

Withey said European big men are extremely physical, so it will be a challenge for him to show that he can score over legitimate big men and handle double-teams. He no longer has Robinson to demand all of the attention.

Four years ago when the Jayhawks went on a similar trip, they were replacing all five starters after winning the national championship in 2008. That team ended up winning the Big 12 and making the Sweet 16. Self does not have quite as big a rebuilding project this time around, but this will be a nice head start for Withey and the Jayhawks as they try to win their ninth straight Big 12 title and make another tourney run.

C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmoore4.

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