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October 2, 2009

Jay Bilas talks KU

When it comes to college basketball, there aren't many who can break down the game like ESPN's Jay Bilas. Over the years, Bilas has taken the time to give his take on the Kansas Jayhawks and once again, Jayhawk Slant caught up with the former Duke Blue Devil for a preview of the 2009-2010 KU hoops teams. Bill Self has one of his most talented teams in seven years at Kansas and is preparing his players for yet another run at a National Championship.

It's nearly that time of year.

Preseason polls, All-America picks, and of course, Final Four and National Champion selections can only mean one thing:

It's basketball season, and when it comes to previewing teams and players from around the country, Jay Bilas has separated himself from the majority of analysts. Having played at the highest level, and for one of college basketball's more prestigious programs, Bilas knows all too well what it takes to be the best.

The 2009-10 Kansas Jayhawks are in a position to win their second championship in three seasons. Self and his staff have put together a loaded squad and seem to be the early favorites to win it all. When it comes to making predictions, despite how good a team is on paper, it doesn't always play out that way.

"No, I would not," said Bilas when asked whether KU is as heavy a favorite as North Carolina was to start the 2008-09 season.

"I think they're very, very good but remember, Carolina was a final four team the year before. They were older, and even Cole [Aldrich] is just a junior for Kansas. [Tyler] Hansbrough was a senior and all their other guys were older and to tell you the truth they probably would have been better if Marcus Ginyard hadn't gotten hurt."

Looking back on last season, it seemed as though every expert had selected UNC to win it all, and in the end, Roy Williams and his team proved those pundits to be correct. In fact, Carolina was down-right dominating by the end of the season.

"No right-thinking person would have gone into last season thinking anything other than North Carolina winning it all. Even Roy Williams kind of admitted that," Bilas said. "I did a thing with them at the start of last year, in October, and I asked what could stand in your way and he said injuries."

"Anybody can lose, obviously, but when you are that good, injuries are the only major factor in living up to expectations," he added.

Kansas might not be in the same company as an upperclassman-led team like UNC was, but the Jayhawks have plenty of talent and depth to make a run at another championship. Injuries would likely be considered the one major obstacle, but when trying to really break down the type of success this version of Kansas basketball can have.

"Similar talent level and in the number of players that they have but again, that was an older team that had been through it a little bit," said Bilas. "They had been considered really good before, and this team was really good last year but they weren't as powerful."

"If you talked to coaches or people that scouted them [2008-09 Jayhawks], they'd tell you if you stopped Sherron [Collins] and Cole, you're going to beat them. They really didn't have anybody else that was going to hurt you. Opponents would say, let's stop their two best and make everyone else beat us. Sherron and Cole were the guys."

Looking back, it's true the Jayhawks were much easier to guard than many of the top teams. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich were the main contributors on offense. Collins finished the year averaging 18 points per game, Aldrich nearly 15 a game.

With the addition of yet another stellar recruiting class that includes top five prospect Xavier Henry, All Stars Elijah Johnson and Thomas Robinson, as well as Arizona transfer Jeff Withey and the second of Henry's, brother C.J. Henry, KU now has the weapons to relieve much of the pressure that faced Collins and Aldrich a year ago.

Returning players Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris, sophomore guard Tyshawn Taylor and juniors Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar form the nation's most explosive and balanced team. Bilas agreed that offensively, KU is a much better heading into a new season.

"I think this year, Kansas is going to be much more balanced and much more dangerous offensively," he said. "They're always good defensively and will be again this year and probably even better defensively this year because of their depth, but they will be much better offensively and much more powerful."

"Having guys that have been through the system and understand a little more what it takes to be good, to be effective, and to be consistent from game to game is important. I thought what they did last year was remarkable. They had a great run to the Sweet 16 and nearly beat Michigan State, and I thought Michigan State was really good."

Despite their success last season, it goes without question that KU is a more potent team as a whole, and Bilas made clear that this upcoming season should prove to be better than that of 2008-09.

Sporting News Magazine recently named KU as the team of the decade, a great compliment to a program that has been able to sustain success for not only the past 10 years, but since its beginning. The question is debated nearly on a daily basis, which program has the most history?

It has become a popular message board topic and everyone seems to have their own opinion, yet always seem to list the same five or six programs.

When looking at Kansas over its history, one would be hard-pressed to find a program that has a stronger claim for most successful of all time. It begs the question, what makes a team so consistently successful?

"It's an easy answer in that they consistently get really good players and have really good coaches. But the under-dealings of that are a little more complicated. I think it's really hard for a team to be consistently excellent over time without having established tradition."

"Kansas is one of the teams that has established tradition. You walk into that gym and you have a feeling of reverence. They've hung banners up there…the guys that invented the game have walked that ground," Bilas stated.

Conversely, every program goes through a period where not everything is so positive and impressive. KU legends James Naismith and Phog Allen might have turned over in their graves after word broke of on-campus fights between members of both the basketball and football program.

Tyshawn Taylor, who is coming off a highly productive and successful off-season, dislocated his finger in one of three altercations. The events shed a negative light on an otherwise clean and enviable program. While the fights certainly won't leave a negative mark over the long-haul, the short term embarrassment on a local and national level is a concern for not only Self, football coach Mark Mangino, but also Athletic Director Lew Perkins.

"It's one of those things where most people would chalk it up to kids that are hopefully learning a pretty valuable lesson. It's not like players didn't fight 30 years ago," Bilas said when asked about the fights at KU. "I am not suggesting it was happening at Kansas, in fact, I just watched something on television the other day and they were kind of glorifying a fight between Duke and North Carolina that happened on the floor."

"When I was a kid, I remember listening to my dad say that when two guys used to have a beef, they'd go duke it out outside, now guys are carrying guns around."

It should be known that no weapons or use of weapons was reported in the skirmishes at KU, which is something to take note of in the overall scheme of things. Nonetheless, students, teachers, and fans were shocked to hear and witness the two sides duking it out three times in less than 18 hours.

"Maybe that's how our culture has improved; now we're shocked when someone gets in a fight."

"There's nothing to be condoned about this thing. Kansas will handle it, I'm confident in that, but they also have to have a sense of proportionality that it's a bunch of 18-22 year old athletes that got into a little scrape. It wasn't some weapon-laden fight. It needs to be dealt with but I don't think its something that shakes the foundation of the republic."

While the university and the athletic department handle any punishments in house and begin to move on from this bump in the road, a winning football team continues to dominate the competition, while the likely preseason No. 1 basketball team begins practice, starting with their annual two-week boot camp.

It has been stated that, as a team, Kansas is more prepared physically than they have been in anytime under Self's tenure. Over the summer, the team had an average of 14 pounds of muscle gain during workouts, something that will obviously help each player better prepare for the grind of a long season.

The Jayhawks have one of the more difficult schedules of any Division 1 team, and will be tested early in the non-conference season. One aspect of the recent altercations that came under fire was the apparent lack of a team leader who could help put to bed any ill-will. Most would agree that Collins and Aldrich should serve as said leaders and were the two basketball players listed on the duel statement released by the football and basketball players after the third altercation between the two sides.

Aside from avoiding injuries, Bilas listed his keys to KU's success in what could be a special season, but doesn't necessarily put the weight of leadership on any one player.

"A key for a team that is as highly rated…it's easy to say that a guy's got to lead but there are so many different leaders on a good team. You'll have the overall leader of the team. You'll have a guy that leads the guards or someone that maybe takes charge and leads the bench," he said. "It's not something you would necessarily see or read about in a newspaper and things like that but I tend to think that the teams that have the easiest time are the ones that are concerned more about not the end, but concerned about right now."

"Practice is starting and they are focused on getting better as a team today, that that's the goal and if that's the consistent goal, to keep your horizon short and we're going to work on getting better everyday, those are the teams that ultimately wind up being there in the end."

Bilas added that despite the talent, the coaching, and the right preparation, nothing is a given. The NCAA tournament is a grueling three week process which requires a fair amount of luck along the way. For now, in early October, taking it day by day, practice by practice, is the best way to prepare yourself for what could turn out to be a dream come true for these players.

"You can do all of that and still get beat but the teams that are worried about winning a championship right now, and focused on being number one and all of that, are the ones that aren't going to be able to sustain it. It's like thinking about the finish line at the start of a marathon, they just don't do that."

"Marathon runners have a strategy for every portion of the race, Bilas said. "They keep their horizon short."

It feels like coaches use that line constantly. The line that says, "we are taking it one game at a time," but it makes sense. It's hard to predict the future, and if you focus on what you hope the end result is, you lose track of what it takes to get there.

Kansas has one of the top coaching staffs in the country, and has the right mix of youth and elder-statesmen to get the job done. Whether or not they can keep their cool and their focus, beginning with 5:45 a.m. workouts, is the real question.

If they can, Lawrence could very well be known as Title Town for the sixth time in school history.


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