Although he's only in his second year with the Jayhawks, coach Bill Self realizes the 2004-05 season will be filled with hopes -- realistic hopes -- of a national title.
Along with boasting one of the most impressive recruiting classes in recent KU memory, Self's squad returns four starters from a team that reached the Elite Eight before bowing out to national runner-up Georgia Tech.
Few teams in the country will be as deep as Kansas. And perhaps none will feature a trio as battled-tested as Wayne Simien, Keith Langford and Aaron Miles. The three seniors have helped the Jayhawks to two Final Four appearances and a 12-3 record in NCAA tournament play.
FRONTCOURTLeading the way for the Jayhawks is Simien, an All-America candidate and potential first-round pick in next summer's NBA Draft. A 255-pound bruiser, Simien is at his best when he's muscling his way toward the basket for a dunk or easy lay-up. But he can also score away from the paint, which is imperative in Self's high-low offense. Don't be surprised to see Simien take his share of 3-pointers this season.
"I'd like to see Wayne take his man off the bounce a little bit more and be able to extend and pressure on the perimeter," Self said.
The biggest question comes at the other forward position. The graduation of Jeff Graves and the transfer of David Padgett to Louisville will force the Jayhawks to rely on three freshmen -- Sasha Kaun, C.J. Giles and Darnell Jackson.
Kaun, who chose Kansas over Duke, is clearly the most polished of the three. He's far from being as physical as Simien, but he has a similar soft shooting touch that allows him to score away from the basket. Jackson is still quite raw. But the athletic 240-pounder plays with a ferocity that could make him an immediate force when it comes to defense and rebounding. Giles has plenty of height at 6-foot-10 but needs to add size and strength.
BACKCOURTKansas couldn't be any more loaded on the perimeter, where J.R. Giddens joins Miles and Langford in the starting lineup.
The only four-year starter on the roster, Miles boasts 738 career assists and is on pace to shatter Jacque Vaughn's school record of 804. He's started in two Final Fours while leading KU to a 42-6 conference record in three seasons.
A lack of depth forced Miles to play an average of 34 minutes as a junior last season. But the addition of Russell Robinson, a combo guard, and the continual improvement of junior Jeff Hawkins will allow Miles to catch a few more breathers this season.
Langford's much-improved shooting touch could very well lead to a career in the NBA, but his biggest strength is his ability to create for others while getting into the lane.
Giddens is the player attracting the most attention from NBA scouts. Analysts are predicting that the 6-5 sharpshooter will be a top-10 pick in next summer's NBA Draft, which means the '04-05 season could be his last in Lawrence.
Giddens nailed 74 3-pointers last year, and his highlight dunk reel quickly made him a fan favorite. His biggest challenge will be improving his ball-handling ability. Giddens had more starts (29) than assists (28) last season.
With all the talk about Miles, Langford and Simien, Michael Lee often gets overlooked. But he has blossomed into one of the most important players on the KU roster.
FINAL ANALYSISAfter spending his inaugural year escaping the shadow of Roy Williams, Self faces an even bigger burden in '04-05: Living up to national title expectations.
Kansas -- whose schedule includes games against Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State and Texas -- will certainly have been tested by the time NCAA tournament play rolls around.
"We'd all be disappointed if we didn't perform at a high level and have an opportunity to go to St. Louis [for the Final Four]," Self said. "But we also understand you can perform at a high level and still come up short. That's just sports."