LAWRENCE — Every time that Kansas head coach Bill Self sends his starting five onto the court, an argument could be made that he’s playing with the exception rather than the rule.
The Jayhawks, in an era of freshman phenoms and one-and-done superstars, start four seniors.
Sure, they also have a star freshman in Ben McLemore, but it’s been the veteran poise of Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Kevin Young that allowed the Jayhawks to go 29-5 this season, win the Big 12 title and earn the No. 1 seed in the South Region of the NCAA tournament.
All four were key contributors last season, when the Jayhawks made a surprising run to the national title game, giving them the kind of experience rarely found anywhere else these days.
“We’ve got four seniors that all play a big part,” Young said of the Jayhawks, who open Friday against Western Kentucky. “We all constantly remind each other how much we have to work, during the game, and when we’re on timeouts. I think we’re all great extensions of coach.”
It’s not just Kansas that is relying on senior leadership, though.
All three schools from the Sunflower State that are dancing have veterans leading the way.
The top scorer for Kansas State, the No. 4 seed in the West Region, is senior swingman Rodney McGruder, while seniors Martavious Irving and Jordan Henriquez have provided valuable minutes.
The Wildcats (27-7) will play Boise State or La Salle in their opener Friday.
Junior guard Cleanthony Early may be the most talented player on Wichita State, the ninth seed in the West, but seniors Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams have been the ones steering the Shockers to a 26-8 record and an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
They’ll open against eighth-seeded Pittsburgh on Thursday.
“From my experience, I know my freshman year they beat us in Kansas City,” Williams said of the Panthers, “so for me personally, I want the revenge.”
That’s the kind of motivation unique to teams stacked with veteran players.
The Jayhawks are especially unique, because the nation’s premier programs tend to attract the nation’s premier talent. So by the time many players recruited by blue bloods such as Kansas, Duke and Kentucky would be juniors or seniors, they’ve already headed to the NBA.
Just consider the Wildcats, who beat Kansas in last year’s title game.
Anthony Davis was chosen first overall in the draft after his only season in Lexington, and fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrest was snapped up second overall. Another freshman, Marquis Teague, was picked later in the first round, and a pair of sophomores in Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones also had their names called in the draft.
“Talent is the most important thing,” Self acknowledged in an interview this week, “but then experienced talent is the next most important thing.”
The Jayhawks’ cast of seniors is even more exceptional in that three of them are fifth-year players, and none of them is a 1,000-point scorer for his career.
For the most part, they’ve been role players throughout their careers.
Withey went to Arizona as a freshman, but was granted a release to transfer midway through the year. He finally landed at Kansas, a school that had been recruiting him out of high school, and then barely played his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons in Lawrence.
Last year, he emerged as one of the nation’s top defensive post players.
Young, meanwhile, played his first two seasons at Loyola Marymount before transferring to Kansas, where he was also forced to redshirt a season. He was a valuable energy guy off the bench last season, but has now become one of the cornerstones of the starting lineup.
Releford was a highly sought recruit out of Kansas City as a prep player, but after playing sparingly as a freshman, he decided to redshirt. That gave him a season to mature, thinned out a logjam of guards on the roster, and allowed him to later move into the starting lineup.
Then there’s Johnson, who played little as a freshman and sophomore but has averaged more than 30 minutes over the past two seasons while becoming the team’s unofficial spokesman.
‘’What I’m most proud of, we have four guys in different scenarios who bided their time,” Self said, “and when their opportunity knocked, they beat the door down. It’s been pretty cool to watch from the outside.”