Despite coming off the bench the past two seasons, Sherron Collins was referred to as the most talented guard on the team at times. The Jayhawks need the former five-star recruit to prove it this year.
Cole Aldrich is the Jayhawks' only post player with Division I experience.
With the departures of veterans Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson, Collins is the only guard on the roster with solid experience at the Division I level. Collins, who averaged 9.3 points in 2006-07 and 2007-08, will be asked to generate much of the offense and be the leader for a young team. The 5-foot-11 junior should have an All-Big 12 kind of year. Nobody in the league is more explosive or faster with the ball in the open court. But, there will be a drop-off in one area. He's not nearly as good a defender as Chalmers or Robinson, who were among the top defensive players in the nation.
It's not clear yet just who will play alongside Collins, but there are plenty of options. The Jayhawks have added four guards, including two of the nation's top junior college transfers - Mario Little and Tyrone Appleton. Top-100 high school prospects Travis Releford and Tyshawn Taylor will join the fold as well. Sophomore Tyrel Reed also returns after seeing limited action in 23 games.
Those five probably will be part of a steady rotation, especially early as the coaching staff experiments to see who fits best where. Little, who was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the 2008 junior college rankings, is a 6-5 wing with a good shooting stroke who can also help out on the glass. Appleton (No. 3) can play the point or off the ball. Releford (6-5) and Taylor (6-3) both have good size and can also play multiple positions. Releford and Taylor were first and second on the team in scoring during a three-game exhibition tour in Canada in September. Releford was also a starter on the U.S. 18U team that finished second in the FIBA Americas Championship in Argentina. Reed, a coach's son, can shoot from the outside and handle the ball. He may back up Collins at the point.
There are some even bigger holes to fill here than in the backcourt. The early departure of first-round pick Darrell Arthur and the graduation of veterans Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun leave the Jayhawks without 31.1 points and 16.9 rebounds per game. Add small forward Brandon Rush (also a first-round pick) to the mix and those numbers rise to 44.4 points and 22.0 rebounds.
Just to replace half of that production the Jayhawks need a breakthrough year from sophomore center Cole Aldrich. The 6-11 Aldrich, the only post player on the roster with any college experience, was a role player last season, averaging only 8.3 minutes a game. But, the former four-star recruit did show signs of being capable of being much more in the Final Four. The big man made some big plays in the Jayhawks' 84-66 rout of North Carolina in the semifinals, scoring eight points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking four shots. Whether he can play that way consistently may be the biggest factor in deciding just how far the Jayhawks advance in the postseason.
A pair of twin freshmen, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris, four-star prospects from the Philadelphia area, must also develop quickly. Either could start alongside Aldrich, and they both will play steady minutes. The 6-9 Markieff, ranked No. 49 in the 2008 class, is more of a true post player who can provide an inside presence, especially on defense. Marcus, ranked No. 29, is more athletic and versatile. Both must contribute for the Jayhawks to contend in the Big 12 again. Another freshman, three-star power forward Quintrell Thomas, could also be used to add some depth.
The Jayhawks can't count on their defense to generate nearly as much of their offense as in recent years. Robinson and Chalmers both excelled at creating turnovers, and Bill Self often called Rush the team's best one-on-one defender.
Expect some rough moments early on. Not only has the roster been overhauled, but the non-conference schedule may be the toughest in the nation. There are home dates against SEC favorite Tennessee, Kent State (ranked No. 53 by Rivals.com), New Mexico State (No. 58) and Temple, road trips to Arizona (No. 38) and Michigan State (in our top 15), a matchup with Massachusetts (No. 50) in Kansas City, Mo., and a tournament that includes a game against Washington (No. 51) and a possible matchup with Florida (No. 19) or Syracuse (No. 32). But, expect the Jayhawks to get some momentum rolling once Big 12 play starts. Three seasons ago, Self had an even younger team that started out 3-4. It went on to win 15 of its last 17 games and capture the Big 12 tournament title. A lack of offense may hold the Jayhawks back from getting that hot, but we fully expect them to be a factor in the race for the league title. They'll finish among the top four in the Big 12 and win at least one NCAA tournament game.
An aggressive man-to-man has long been the trademark of Self's teams and that won't change. Players are heavily encouraged to pressure the ball and get into passing lanes. They will also press at times. With so many new parts, learning the new system and how to play with the required intensity will take some time so expect an adjustment period.
SHOES TO FILL
It's impossible to pick just one player. Nobody in the nation lost more than the Jayhawks, who are parting with five starters and one of their top reserves. Arthur, Chalmers, Jackson, Robinson, Rush and Kaun combined for around 80 percent of the team's scoring and rebounding.
MUST STEP UP
Aldrich. Replacing much of the inside presence provided by Arthur, Jackson and Kaun falls on this big man's broad shoulders. He needs to be one of the Big 12's top rebounders and shot blockers and avoid too much foul trouble along the way.
Little. This versatile wing isn't quite as talented as Rush, but he could play a similar role. He can play multiple positions, and he has the size and skills to be an inside-outside scoring threat.
Andrew Skwara is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.