LAWRENCE — Expectations never change at Kansas.
It doesn’t matter that the Jayhawks lost the seventh overall choice in the NBA draft in Ben McLemore, or a bevy of seniors led by 7-footer Jeff Withey, a second-round pick in April’s draft.
In fact, expectations may be higher than ever this season.
The Jayhawks will begin pursuit of their unprecedented 10th consecutive Big 12 championship by leaning on perhaps the most heralded freshman class that coach Bill Self has assembled during his decade-long tenure in Lawrence. It’s led by Andrew Wiggins, the consensus No. 1 overall recruit, and includes two other potential one-and-done stars in Wayne Selden and Joel Embiid.
“There’s as much hype around this year as any,” Self said, “and it’s a large part because of the unknown. We’ve had other good players and other good teams returning. This team hasn’t proven itself at all. But the unknown of having a good recruiting class has everyone pretty excited.”
McLemore averaged more than 16 points during his only season at Kansas, while Withey rewrote the record books when it came to blocked shots. But after reaching the national title game two years ago, the Jayhawks took a step backward last season.
Sure, they shared the regular-season Big 12 title with Kansas State, and then ran roughshod through the league tournament. But they were ousted by Michigan in overtime the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, a frustrating end to what had been a solid season.
The loss stung even more when folks realized just how much talent was departing — along with McLemore and Withey, the Jayhawks also lost veterans such as Elijah Johnson. But any angst over the future turned to excitement when the low-key Wiggins made his intentions official.
The silky-smooth 6-foot-8 swingman was the final addition to the incoming crop of freshman, and easily the biggest name. Self compared his game to that of Tracy McGrady, and Wiggins has already created the kind of buzz around town not felt since Danny Manning arrived in the 1980s.
“I’ve got a lot of expectations for the team,” said Wiggins, who is widely projected to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. “We’re a young team, but I know we can do a lot of damage. Hopefully, we’ll win the Big 12 and then win the whole thing.”
Those are ambitious goals most places. Not so much at Kansas.
Here are five things that have to happen for the Jayhawks to make a late March run:
• SELDEN MUST STAR: Self has said that Selden has been the most impressive player on the floor in the early stages of practice. He’s a physical 6-5 guard who would be the headliner in just about any recruiting class. “I’ve been playing with grown guys since I was 14 or 15,” Selden said, “so that’s helped me develop for sure.”
• DIRECT FROM CAMEROON: Embiid is a raw but athletic 7-footer with the potential to develop into one of the nation’s top post players. The big question is how quickly it will happen. “Joel is as talented a big kid we’ve ever had because he’s so good on his feet,” Self said.
• BLACK (AND BLUE) INSIDES: Tarik Black, who transferred from Memphis for his senior season, will be counted on to solidify the post. The 6-9 forward is a bruiser, too. “If you look around the court, there’s so much talent,” Black said, “and you put a coach like Bill Self at the head of that, it’s kind of scary. It’s very scary.”
• VETERAN HELP: With all the attention on newcomers, many people forget the Jayhawks have a couple of key veterans coming back. Naadir Tharpe will be counted upon to run the point, and forward Perry Ellis shined at the end of last season. “These are some of the best players I’ve played with,” Tharpe said. “I’ve played with a lot of great players, but there are so many options we can go to, it’ll be incredible to watch.”
• TOUGH SCHEDULE: Kansas plays Wake Forest and either Villanova or Southern California in the Bahamas, visits Colorado and Florida, takes on New Mexico in Kansas City, Mo., and then hosts Georgetown at Allen Fieldhouse — all before the start of a brutal conference schedule. “This year we maybe overextended ourselves a little bit,” Self acknowledged. “I don’t know if there’s any team in America that will be doing anything like that. I do like that we’re playing a hard schedule. Hard schedules expose what your true weaknesses are. They aren’t camouflaged by playing some opponents where you can get by with some things. In the end, it will help us.”