LAWRENCE, Kan. —
The first thing you notice about the Kansas basketball team this year is that it's big.
Not in height, though 7-footer Jeff Withey stands out, but in numbers.
There are a lot of players on the roster this season, 17 to be exact, and for the most part they land on the extremes of experience. The main contributors will be either seniors who were part of a national title run last season or wide-eyed freshmen who watched the Final Four from afar.
"We have so much experience, at the same time, we have a lot of freshmen, so it's going to be a fun season,'' said Withey, who emerged last season as a shot-swatting All-America candidate.
"It'll be fun for the older guys to teach the young guys. We have all this experience,'' Withey said. "The game has slowed down to us - for them it's fast motion - so it'll be fun for us.''
There are several reasons for the unique composition of the team.
All-America forward Thomas Robinson declared for the NBA draft a year early, opening up a scholarship for another newcomer. That's one reason why there are nine freshmen on the roster.
Another reason is that two of them were forced to sit out last season.
Ben McLemore, a talented combo guard, and Jamari Traylor, an athletic power forward, were deemed partial qualifiers by the NCAA and forced to redshirt. They wound up being able to practice the second semester, but they weren't able to participate in games.
Both of them ready to go this season, which officially tips off Friday night with the annual "Late Night in the Phog'' practice.
"It's totally different when you get under the lights. These guys will be scared to death tomorrow night. Their biggest crowd ever is what, a thousand?'' Jayhawks coach Bill Self said.
"Making mistakes under pressure, people writing about mistakes, the pressures that go along with, some freshmen welcome that and want there. There's pressure playing here.''
There's certainly going to be pressure on Self, too.
He agreed to a restructured contract a few weeks ago that extends through the 2021-22 season and includes a raise to $3.857 million per year. His previous contract ran through June 2018.
Self's new contract includes bonus provisions of $50,000 for conference regular-season titles, $25,000 for winning the conference tournament, $100,000 for earning AP coach of the year, $150,000 for reaching the Final Four and $200,000 for winning the national championship.
Something that the Jayhawks nearly accomplished last season.
Behind the bruising play of Robinson and the often-maddening play of talented guard Tyshawn Taylor, the Jayhawks rolled to another Big 12 championship and all the way to New Orleans.
Kansas eventually ran into mighty Kentucky and its NBA-laden lineup, but a team that many didn't believe was capable of winning its conference had nearly won it all.
Even though Robinson and Taylor are gone, along with role player Connor Teahan, the Jayhawks still return three starters in Withey, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. Super-sub Kevin Young is also back for his senior season after making some key contributions down the stretch.
Then there are all those new faces ready to step up.
McLemore could move directly into the starting lineup after impressing just about everyone in practice last season. Anrio Adams, a guard from Seattle, has shown some ability to handle the ball, while forward Perry Ellis may carry on his shoulders the biggest expectations.
The five-star recruit from Wichita has been committed to the Jayhawks for so long that the anticipation to actual see him on the court has reached a breaking point.
"Just the atmosphere, all these people, I never played in an arena with this many people watching,'' Ellis said, taking solace in the fact that he's not alone.
There are plenty of other freshmen going through the same thing.
Indeed, there will be plenty of new names when the Jayhawks take the court for their first exhibition game Oct. 30 against Emporia State, and when the nation gets to see them play Michigan State on Nov. 13 in Atlanta in just their second regular-season game.
That doesn't mean expectations are any different.
Kansas was picked to win the Big 12 once again Thursday in balloting by league coaches.
"I was probably more surprised with us being picked first this year than us being picked not first in the past. We return some guys, but we lost three of our top six, two of them were pretty good. Those two guys scored 36 a night,'' Self said, referring to Robinson and Taylor.
Then he admitted what everyone has come to expect of the Jayhawks over the years: "I do think we have a chance to be good by the end.''