BY RUSTIN DODD
If there were a true dead period in the college sports calendar — and let’s put an emphasis on the “if” — it might have started on Friday, the first official day of summer, right smack-dab in the middle of a competition-less void.
The opening of Kansas’ football season (Sept. 7 against South Dakota) is still 78 days away. And at this precise moment, it’s been 83 days since Kansas’ crushing NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan — with another 106 days to go before Late Night in the Phog on Oct. 4.
But there are still plenty of KU questions to ponder as the calendar heads toward July. Charlie Weis is entering his second season at Kansas with a juco-infused roster, and Andrew Wiggins is now on campus, doing stuff like this in his first scrimmage, and leading a heralded class of freshmen.
So, in honor of the first day of summer, I’ve sorted through my emails and Twitter, delivering the inaugural KU Summer Mailbag. Let’s get started:
@AshworthBen Who do you see as the most likely redshirt candidates? AWIII (Andrew White)? Frank Mason?
It’s June, of course, which means it’s about four months too early for this question. But this is the summer mailbag, and these questions must be considered. We know one thing: The Jayhawks are not going to have 12 guys in their rotation (Hunter Mickelson, the Jayhawks’ 13th scholarship player, has to sit out after transferring from Arkansas.) But here’s another: KU certainly doesn’t NEED to redshirt anybody.
In the frontcourt, there aren’t many candidates. Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas have already burned their redshirts; Tarik Black is a graduate transfer; and Perry Ellis and freshman Joel Embiid are out of this discussion.
So we turn to the backcourt, where Andrew Wiggins has added to a logjam of talented wings. Bill Self has traditionally played a rotation with four “smalls” — and maybe a fifth playing spot minutes. Wiggins and freshman Wayne Selden appear capable of holding down starting spots, and Naadir Tharpe is the only guard with any semblance of experience. Add in freshman sharpshooters Conner Frankamp, Brannen Greene, and Frank Mason, who provides some point-guard skills, and yes, it appears that Andrew White could have difficulty breaking into the rotation.
Let’s pause for a historical footnote: Self has said that his current roster might be his deepest since the 2009-10 team, which featured about eight players that have played (or will play) a minute in the NBA. That KU team had Jeff Withey as its sixth-best big man, and a backcourt that featured Sherron Collins, Tyshawn Taylor, Xavier Henry, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Elijah Johnson. The end result was that Travis Releford redshirted … and he eventually turned into an all-Big 12 second-team wing.
At the moment, it looks like KU will have loads of depth in the backcourt again. Would White benefit from a year on the sideline, following the Releford blueprint? A solid argument could certainly be made.
Of course, it looked like Kansas would be deeper last year as well. And for a while, Self could only count on his five starters. So, yes, we’ll remind again: It’s early.
The obvious answer is Wiggins, but it’s worth thinking about how much of the load he’ll be able to carry … and where the other scoring will come from. There may be some surprises — watching Joel Embiid in two scrimmages, his raw ability almost feels like Neon Boudeaux, Shaq’s character in Blue Chips. Brannen Greene and Conner Frankamp could be in that category as well. But if you have to play it safe, the Jayhawks’ top four scorers could looking something like this:
Andrew Wiggins: 18.7
Perry Ellis: 12.3
Wayne Selden: 11.9
Tarik Black: 10.1
@Pay_Heed: Who makes the bigger impact this season: Tarik Black or Conner Frankamp?
Based on the competition at the respective positions, we’ll lean toward Black for now. On a young team, Black can bring some experience and toughness. These are important traits to Self, of course. And while his raw rebounding numbers were never eye-popping at Memphis, Black has always been effective at scoring around the basket. All that said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Black begin the season in the starting lineup alongside Ellis in the frontcourt.
Last week, Frankamp, a 6-foot guard from Wichita, said he wanted to improve his lateral quickness this summer. Frankamp obviously had defense on his mind, and he admitted as such. His shooting ability is a rare gift, but he’ll have to prove he can guard to Self’s liking to command major minutes as a freshman.
@Brad_Hope: Who is KU football gonna cost their job in the fall (by beating them)? My vote is Mack Brown.
@lifeofmamafitz: Will KU win a conference game for the first time in over 2 years?
Yes, lots of questions about The Streaks. Kansas football enters this season with plenty of, well … interesting runs still intact. The Jayhawks have lost 21 straight in the Big 12 — their last win came in a ridiculous comeback against Colorado on Nov. 6, 2010 — and they’ve lost 19 straight on the road. (The last road win: At UTEP on Nov. 12, 2009.) Another rather dim fact: The last league win against a team still in the Big 12 came against Iowa State on Oct. 10, 2009.
So … it’s been a while. The Jayhawks open with a non-conference slate of South Dakota, at Rice, and Louisiana Tech. Then comes this opening leg of the Big 12 schedule, in this order: Texas Tech, at TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor.
And here’s the thing: If you look at the rest of the schedule, the Jayhawks might have their most winnable conference game right out of the gate. KU won nearly won at Texas Tech last season, and the Red Raiders are rebuilding under new coach/certified bro Kliff Klingsbury, who actually spent a year playing under Weis in New England in 2003. If not Texas Tech, the Jayhawks have Baylor, West Virginia and Kansas State at home, plus an intriguing roadie at Iowa State. If KU fails against Tech, those could be Weis’ best bets.
Two newcomers. Two positions of need. (Aren’t they all?). So, yes, tough question here. Combs, a juco defensive tackle, was rated as one of the top junior college players last season, a standout in a juco-dominated recruiting class. And McCay, an Oklahoma transfer and former Bishop Miege standout, joins a receiving corps that finished last year without catching a touchdown pass.
The Jayhawks’ interior line actually has some promise, with defensive tackle Ty McKinney, another juco body, finally on campus, and Keon Stowers apparently improving.
McCay spent all of last season working on his chemistry with quarterback Jake Heaps on the scout team, so perhaps that will help. But McCay profiles more as a physical, possession receiver than a bona fide deep threat. In case you forgot: He was listed as a second-team receiver during spring practice.
In this case, there might be a bigger hole at receiver than defensive tackle. But Combs could have more potential than McCay in the long run.
@clark_goble: The WR position has been a wasteland for years… Sounds like McCay is legit, but who plays on the other side?
The obvious answer is Nick Harwell, the senior transfer from Miami of Ohio. Harwell was one of the most dangerous receivers in the MAC in 2011 (97 catches, 1,425 yards) before an injury slowed his production last season. Some off-the-field issues served to expedite his departure, and it appears that KU is still working to make sure he can be eligible immediately. The problem: Harwell needs to graduate in order to be eligible immediately, under the graduate transfer rule, but his off-field problems threatened his ability to finish up his degree at Miami. If he’s eligible, Harwell could be the most talented Kansas receiver since Dezmon Briscoe left school early after the 2009 season.
Some other possibilities: Senior Christian Matthews, who was used as a Wildcat QB last season, drew praise during spring practice. Senior Josh Ford, a former Juco transfer, has had a year in the system. And junior running back Tony Pierson could be a dark horse to be the Jayhawks’ leading receiver if Weis holds true to his plan to turn him loose in the passing game.
@JayhawkTalk here’s another – Who do you think is the “best” NBA player from KU under Self? Create your own parameters for consideration.
This is a fascinating question, not because it’s that interesting, but because it highlights an issue that’s surfaced during the last couple years. Bill Self’s staff has been phenomenal at turning good-but-not-elite recruits into first-round picks. The Morris twins. Thomas Robinson. And now Jeff Withey. But Self hasn’t been able to claim an NBA star, and while that’s no knock (NBA stars are a rare, rare thing), it’s something that will be brought up until it happens. Maybe Ben McLemore changes that. And Andrew Wiggins will be expected to.
But for now, let’s look at the results.
Brandon Rush was carving out a perfectly adequate career as a role player, and Darrell Arthur has been steady in Memphis. But others, such as Julian Wright, Cole Aldrich, Josh Selby and Xavier Henry have struggled to find any traction at the next level. The Morris twins are now together in Phoenix, and Thomas Robinson still has time to turn it around, but the NBA can be a humbling experience.
Brief aside: I once asked former Jayhawk Scot Pollard why so many former KU players were struggling in the NBA, and he chalked a lot of it up to size. Aldrich isn’t quite big enough to play center, Pollard said, and Marcus Morris and Robinson are a little small to be an NBA power forward. They can still be solid players on good teams, of course, but their size may limit their respective ceilings.
And that brings us to last night, when Mario Chalmers cemented himself as the best NBA player from Self’s era. A role player on a two-time NBA champion, Chalmers became the fourth Jayhawk to win multiple NBA crowns when the Heat won an epic game seven over the Spurts. (He joins Clyde Lovellette, Wilt Chamberlain and Jo Jo White as Jayhawks with more than one ring.)
Chalmers is an interesting case. He is at once probably better than people think (8.4 points per game, while playing solid defense), and also fortunate to be playing with perhaps the greatest small forward of all time.
He also plays with the sort of irrational confidence that is probably needed to line up next to LeBron, and Thursday’s game reminded me of two Chalmers stories.
The first came last year, when Dwyane Wade joked that Chalmers thought he was the best player on the Heat. (“A gift and a curse,” Wade said.) But the other story comes from after Chalmers’ sophomore year at KU, when teammates Rush and Wright were both pondering a jump to the NBA. After the postseason banquet, Chalmers took the time to tell reporters that he was passing on the NBA to return to KU, which seemed a little ridiculous at the time. Chalmers wasn’t on any draft boards, and was essentially a skinny, 6-foot-2 shooting guard. But that didn’t stop Chalmers from telling a group of reporters that he believed he would have gone in the first round.
The next year, I remember being on a flight back from San Antonio after the Jayhawks won the NCAA title. I sat next to a KU fan, and told him I expected Chalmers to leave for the draft after making his miracle shot against Memphis. The fan appeared incredulous — “He’s too short,” he said — but I was pretty confident. Maybe Chalmers wasn’t ready for the NBA after his junior year. But he certainly believed he was. And for Chalmers, that’s made all the difference.