Head Coach Bill Self’s bench is admittedly not as deep as it normally is yet Self and his staff have again found a way to make the pieces fit.
There were questions early in the season. How would Thomas Robinson accept his new role of being the go-to guy? Would Tyshawn Taylor be able to lead this team? Who would be that coveted third scorer?
So far the Jayhawks have had an emphatic answer to all those questions. Robinson is a National Player of the Year candidate, Tyshawn Taylor has been awesome in Big 12 play, and Jeff Withey played a stretch of basketball that ranks up there with some of the best big men to put on a uniform under Self. Every player thrust into playing time has responded.
This year is special because it shows that Kansas can be successful in different ways.
Robinson, Withey, Teahan, Travis Releford, and even Elijah Johnson to some extent, have all waited in the wings for their turn to shine.
Robinson played behind Cole Aldrich and the Twins and Withey is a redshirt junior who played behind ALL of the aforementioned players. Releford, a Kansas kid, stayed the course and is now one of the team’s best defenders. Conner Teahan is a redshirt senior who played behind three-point marksman Tyrel Reed, and now is the team’s specialty shooter. Elijah Johnson went through bouts of frustration and didn’t play much his freshman year but this year has started every game.
It speaks to Self and his staff and their ability to develop players. It’s not easy to give up a year of competition, redshirt, and put your head down, dig in and keep working. But there are plenty of guys on this roster who have done it.
“Because of depth, we’ve been able to redshirt (Conner) Teahan. Because of depth we’ve been able to redshirt Releford,” Self added. “Because of transfer (rules) we’ve been able to redshirt (Jeff) Withey. Three of our top six are spending an extra year here. That’s because of depth. If we needed those guys immediately we wouldn’t have done that.”
So these players are really the beneficiaries of the talent to come before them. They came into this season older, wiser, and ready to contribute when their number was called.
“Yes, definitely,” Releford answered when asked if that redshirt season helped him. “It helped confidence -wise, skill-wise, and just learning the way Coach Self wanted me to play.”
“He’s had so many repetitions of doing it the way that we coach it, that he’s gotten really good of playing it those ways. I think that he’s bought in and that’s the biggest reason why he’s doing really well,” said Self.
The 6-6 Releford embraced his role as a defensive stopper and a player who knows he doesn’t have to score but he’s confident enough to take his opportunities.
They’ve all learned and bought into to Self’s system where each player seems to always have a tremendous understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. As a result 4 different Kansas players have earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors – Robinson, Taylor, Releford, and most recently Withey.
"Jeff is in the stretch. Travis (Releford) was in the stretch for a second. How many schools in America, regardless of their league, has had four different players be the conference player of week? That's unbelievable to me,” Self marveled.
It seems to be a different player every night for Kansas and lately it’s been Withey. The 7-footer has been the biggest surprise and arguably has played as good as any big man in the nation. Self says that his performance has really come “out of left field”, that’s not based on skill level necessarily but on his number of minutes played entering the season (averaged 3.0 minutes per game last season).
“That light came on,” Self said referring to a time prior to his 25-point performance at Baylor. “That light came on and he got some confidence at Baylor and he’s been a force. I mean he’s been playing at a level like Cole played at when Cole was playing his best.”
“People thought that Thomas (Robinson) was going to have to play the 5 a lot,” explained Elijah Johnson. “People didn't think Jeff (Withey) would be able to play that long or play as good or as hard as he's playing.”
“I think it’s hard to beat us when they are playing like how they have been playing, especially Jeff. A lot of teams focus on Thomas a lot. When Jeff is playing well, it gives us that extra threat, somebody else in the post that can block shots, rebound and score. That helps us a lot.”
“To be able to have T-Rob as a permanent 4 for most of the game, and having a real 5, who's 7 feet tall, blocking shots and altering shots, is definitely a plus,” added Johnson. “It makes our team go faster. It makes Thomas more comfortable at the 4, knowing that he doesn't have to be the biggest one on the court.”
Self said Withey’s performance has taken Kansas to a whole new level but the 9th year Kansas coach says there’s another step for this team. He believes the half court execution can be better and thinks KU can be even better on the defensive end.
“We’re getting better. The thing about it is we still haven’t had everybody on the same page in my opinion,” said Self.
“We’ve had some guys carry us. Jeff’s carried us, Travis has carried us, Tyshawn’s carried us in conference play, Thomas has gone long stretches where he’s carried us. No question but Elijah hasn’t got in that great groove yet that he’s capable of I really think that Travis’ offensive production has been in and out, Conner’s been in and out. I still think there’s another step we can take I really do.”
So if Kansas is to go on and win another Big 12 title and advance deep in the NCAA Tournament will the sense of pride Self and his staff feel with THIS team be any greater?
“I don’t probably have a greater sense of pride because I just want to win,” said Self. “And these guys have all done great but Marcus and Markieff (Morris), and Sherron, and Tyrel (Reed), and Brady (Morningstar), and Cole (Aldrich). I mean they gave us everything they had too. It’s not like I have a greater sense of satisfaction because this team is doing better, I had a great sense when the other teams got better but I will say this I’m so happy for those kids. I’m so happy for them because they did pay their dues.”