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Kentucky versus Kansas: Q&A with David Hess of

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Wildcats face Kansas in an early season battle.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the Wildcats face Kansas in an early season battle.

David Hess is a Kansas fan and writer for TeamRankings.comWildcat fans might remember the Hype Clouds he created for last season.  He was kind enough to answer a few questions about this year's Kansas team as we get ready for an early season tilt between two of the elite programs in college basketball.

On another note, David was the catalyst for the DSS project I started last season.  He has tracked the defense for Kansas and contributed to an excellent piece about defense by Luke Winn for Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview.  He and I will both be charting the defense for the UK-Kansas game which will provided an uncommon opportunity to see how different people view the same game.  His results will appear at TeamRankings later this week.

1) Kansas has been one of the best teams in the country the last several years, but has fallen victim to the vagaries of the NCAA Tournament.  How do fans feel about the program right now?  Are they happy with the overall success, frustrated by the tournament losses the last few years, or somewhere in between?

I haven't lived in Kansas in over a decade, so it's tough for me to know the zeitgeist of the whole fan base, but personally I feel great about the program. I'm sure part of that is because the 2008 title is still only a few years in the rearview, but another part of it is that I enjoy the regular season. I understand that barring a dominant team like 2009 North Carolina or 2007 Florida, the NCAA tournament can be a crapshoot, so I take great pleasure in knowing that Kansas has earned at least a share of the Big 12 title in seven straight years. I actually think Self has over-achieved in the regular season over the past few years, and so those tourney losses feel almost like the inevitable bursting of a bubble, much less soul-crushing than, say, the championship game loss to Syracuse in 2003.

2) The team lost a lot of talent to graduation and the draft last year, and you had a great post on TeamRankings last week showing just how much production Kansas lost.  Most everyone knows about Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, but who else on this team will be filling the holes?  Who are the players that Bill Self needs to step forward this season for Kansas to continue to excel?

Kansas is plugging basically every hole this year, except for point guard, where they return the sometimes-frustrating Taylor. Even Thomas Robinson is tasked with replacing the Morris twins, not just repeating a performance from last year. So this is a tough question; the answer is basically anyone and everyone. To get specific... the secondary interior presence will be Jeff Withey, with maybe a bit of Kevin Young and Justin Wesley thrown in. Withey was a low-minute stick figure last year, but does have the height to dominate against poor opponents. I'm not too excited about the prospect of him facing actual elite talent. It looks like the role of low-usage-rate spot-up shooter will go to Conner Teahan. He played under 4 minutes a game last year, but is 20 for 50 from three for his career, so there's hope. Kansas lacked a great wing player last year, but Travis Releford has a bit of potential there this season. He was -- to continue a theme -- seldom used last year, but seems to have decent potential.

3) Ben McLemore, Jamari Traylor and Braedon Anderson all failed to qualify this season and Kaleb Tarczewski chose Arizona over the Jayhawks.  This led Gary Parrish to wonder what has been wrong with Kansas' recruiting.  Are there really problems, or is this just a confluence of bad luck that every program hits now and again?

I tend to agree with the unnamed coach from Parrish's column in thinking Self will be fine, but honestly, I'm a terrible person to answer this question. I don't follow recruiting closely, and pretty much take the stance that until a player suits up and plays some Division I basketball, there's not much reason for me to pay attention to him, unless he's one of the top 10 or so incoming freshmen. That said, let's step back and take a look at the past few years for Kansas. The 2009 class had Xavier Henry (NBA), Thomas Robinson (preseason All-American), Elijah Johnson, and Jeff Withey. That's a fine haul, if you ask me. The 2010 class was Josh Selby (NBA) and Royce Woolridge (transferred), so that's kind of a bust. This year the headline is that those three recruits were deemed ineligible, but McLemore and Traylor will be able to play next season (and can gain a fourth year of eligibility back if they graduate), plus Naadir Tharpe was probably the second best prospect in the group, and he has looked great so far in exhibitions and against Towson. So this year still may work out fine. Next year Self missed out on Tarczewski (confession -- your question is the first time I ever remember reading his name), but he's signed Perry Ellis and is still in the running for other high level recruits. I'm not too worried about that class. Has he had a crop recently that rivals the group that led the Jayhawks to the title in 2008? No. Is Kansas going through what I'd consider a talent drought? No.

4) Last year you did a Project Defensive Scoresheet series for the Jayhawks.  What did you learn about their defense, or defense in general, that you didn't know or hadn't thought about before?

I'd never really been a student of team defense before, never paid a ton of attention to things like the positioning of help defenders, and I used to get really frustrated with Kansas because they seemed to allow a lot of open looks from three point range. After watching closely, and after taking on a similar project in the off-season for UConn and Florida State, I began to realize that this is part philosophy. The elite college defenses that I've charted seem to take the position that they'd rather double down or help inside and leave jump shooters open instead of sticking close their men and letting interior defenders go one on one. For Kansas last year, that was a tough strategy to execute, because Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed didn't have the length or quickness to actually challenge shots when they were recovering out to open shooters. Contrast that to UConn's Jeremby Lamb or Florida State's Chris Singleton. The perimeter defense of the Jayhawks should be improved this year with the taller Releford, Young, and Teahan guarding the three point line.

On the other hand, the interior defense loses BY FAR it's most valuable player in Markieff Morris. Thomas Robinson did register as the second best defender on the squad, but he wasn't really in Markieff's league. And Withey was actually one of the worst defenders, despite his height advantage. I'm worried about him inside, and I'm worried about Elijah Johnson outside -- EJ rated as the worst Kansas regular last year, in terms of Defensive Rating. However, his mistakes seemed effort and knowledge based - being in the wrong place at the wrong time, falling asleep on occasion and letting his man run free. These seem correctable, so I still have some optimism that he'll become a valuable player at both ends. 

5) As far as the game Tuesday is concerned, what do you expect out of the team?  This early in the season, will they be better on offense or defense?  Who are the players you want to see step forward?

This is the first time in quite a while that I remember heading into a game thinking that KU's opponent is clearly better than them. Luckily, following the US soccer men's national team has made me very familiar with that feeling, so I know that the right approach is to go in looking to see a good, competitive effort, and to worry more about whether the team can stick to their game plan and execute in a few focus areas. I'm going to assume that rebounding has been a point of emphasis this week in practice, given that the Jayhawks were outrebounded by Towson in game one and are facing a physically larger team in Kentucky. So seeing them give UK a run for their money on the boards would be nice.

I'll be very curious to see how Thomas Robinson handles carrying the load for the first time against an elite team. He's a blast to watch, and he has shown flashes of domination in the past, but his 25 minutes against Towson were a career high, and he's never played 20 minutes in a game where Kansas won by less than 20. This is going to be a huge test for him, and if he can't find a way to stay on the court and be productive for extended minutes, the Jayhawks may be in trouble. I'm also intensely curious to see how the newcomers perform against a quality opponent. Tharpe, Wesley, and Young have been quite solid so far. And if Conner Teahan can continue his great shooting, I'll be much more comfortable with him playing starter's minutes this season.

6) What's your prediction for the game?

I know it's blasphemous for a Jayhawk fan to say this, but I'll be happy if Kansas can stay within single digits. I think by the end of the year Kentucky may be the best team in the country, if they aren't already. Though I said I'm looking for a good rebounding performance, I'm actually expecting the Wildcats to dominate the interior, and T-Jones to get T-Rob in foul trouble. I hate picking a score because I'll obviously be wrong, but let's say ... I can't bring myself to project a double digit loss, so 74-65 Kentucky.