There's a neat trick you can play with the Russian nesting doll of last year's Final Four team that Jayhawks coach Roy Williams keeps on his office desk. Even if you remove the outer shell, Drew Gooden, the doll still has five significant components and appears complete. It's an apt metaphor for Williams's team, which lost Gooden to the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies but retains two national player of the year candidates, seniors Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. Yet Williams still can't figure out why some pundits are tabbing the Jayhawks No. 1. "I'm absolutely stunned," he says. "I wouldn't pick us to win our own league."
That's partly because the Big 12 is the nation's best conference. But it's also due to the Jayhawks' extreme reliance on their starting five. Aside from them, the remaining players averaged 0.8 of minute of playing time in a Kansas uniform last year. "I've been saying to our starters, 'You five guys have to stay out of foul trouble, and you can't get sick or hurt,' " Williams says with a sigh. "It's the least depth I've ever had."
Don't feel too sorry for him, though. Collison and Hinrich are the top inside-outside combo in the land, and there were times when last year's freshmen, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and Wayne Simien, carried the Jayhawks. Miles plans to validate his coach's theory that point guards improve the most between their first and second years; Langford should build on a season in which his highest scoring totals came against some of Kansas' toughest foes: Oregon (20 points), Arizona (19) and Illinois (15). Meanwhile, the 255-pound Simien inherits Gooden's position after averaging 8.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in only 15.3 minutes last year. "If he can play 30 minutes and keep that same ratio, he'll be pretty good," says Williams.
But what if, say, Simien gets hurt again (he missed five games last year)? Or if the hack-prone Collison gets into foul trouble? Then the onus falls on 6'9" juco transfer Jeff Graves, who reported to campus weighing 292 pounds (37 more than last year), drawing his coach's ire. But as Williams admits, "He's extremely important to us."
If Graves can earn his spot in this year's Jayhawks nesting doll, Kansas could be rewarded with a more significant souvenir: a championship trophy.
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