There’s a curious statistic that Bill Self has grown fond of bringing up during the last few weeks. It’s one that does a pretty good job of summing up his four-man senior class.
Self’s Kansas team is entering the NCAA Tournament this week as a No. 1 seed with four senior starters — four players that played an integral part in the Jayhawks’ Final Four appearance last season. For a title contender in a one-and-done era, it’s certainly a rare case of seniority.
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And here’s where Self stops the conversation.
“None of them,” Self says, “are 1,000-point scorers.”
Self, of course, is talking about the fact that not one of his seniors has surpassed more than 1,000 career points at Kansas, generally a good signpost for a successful career. As of Monday, Elijah Johnson (919 points), Travis Releford (916), Jeff Withey (893) and Kevin Young (382) were all healthy distances away from the mark.
“That tells you that they didn’t play when they were young,” Self says. “You’ve got four kids from different scenarios that waited their time and made the most of it. And when opportunity knocked, they just beat the door down. It’s been pretty cool to watch from the inside.”
The question, of course, is if this senior class can help the Jayhawks knock down the biggest door of all. The Jayhawks will open the NCAA Tournament about 8:50 p.m. on Friday night against Western Kentucky. And based on NCAA Tournament conventions and history, the eventual national champion will have a roster littered with future pros. But what, exactly, is experience worth in March?
“Talent is the most important thing,” Self says, “and experienced talent would be the next most important thing. And we’ve got some guys that have been there.”
So start with talent. The Jayhawks’ NCAA Tournament run could be largely dependent on the continued development of freshman guard Ben McLemore, KU’s precocious leading scorer. But as Kansas’ veterans gear up for their last dance, they will be playing with a sense of urgency that a freshman couldn’t understand.
“We know that we could have one more game, or we could have six more games,” Withey said. “And we’re gonna go out there and fight and make the most out of this.”
Self has continually said that his current team plays with a smaller margin of error than some of his past squads. Aside from McLemore and Withey, there are no great pro prospects on this year’s roster. But with a core that’s been together for two full years, Johnson is hoping his fellow seniors can save their best ball for the end.
“I feel like right now is the best time; everything’s happening perfect timing,” Johnson said. “Everything feels natural, everything feels in place. I feel no struggle, no tuggle with anything that we’re doing right now. Everything feels fluent.”
In the end, there is no hard-and-fast formula or language for March success. In 2010, Duke won the national championship with three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup. Last season, Kentucky won the title while starting three freshman and two sophomores.
This year, Kansas will go at it with one freshman and four seniors that waited their turn. And Self is hoping it turns out to be the perfect blend.
“The talent level may not be as great as what it has been with some of our teams,” Self said. “But when we play good, we play as good as any of the teams we’ve had. But we have to play good.”