January 27, 2013

Experience separates Kansas from rest of college basketball

Experience makes Jayhawks the best.

Another Monday, another imminent turnover at the top of the men's college basketball polls.

No. 1 Duke officially will be defrocked today by voters, thanks to Wednesday's 90-63 loss at No. 25 Miami. Whether the top spot is inherited by No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Kansas or someone else is irrelevant.

What is worth remembering is that Kansas (18-1, 6-0 Big 12), owner of an NCAA-best 17-game winning streak after Saturday's 67-54 victory over Oklahoma, has been touted as the top overall seed for the NCAA Tournament in the latest round of "Bracketology" projections by analyst Jerry Palm.

The Jayhawks will be difficult to dislodge from that spot between now and March for one significant reason: No team can match the experience of Kansas, which starts four seniors, three of them fifth-year seniors, in an era marked by teams built around one-and-done freshman stars.

Kansas has one of those, too. Freshman guard Ben McLemore, the team's leading scorer (16.2 avg.), easily could be the first pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. But even he fits into the more-experienced-than-the-rest storyline of this team.

McLemore redshirted last season while waiting for NCAA officials to sort out his eligibility status from his high school transcripts.

So he's among the nation's most experienced freshmen and fits comfortably into a senior-laden lineup that is in the process of making a mockery of the Big 12 regular-season race (again) and building momentum for another postseason run after falling to Kentucky 67-59 in last year's NCAA title game.

"We never give up. We have a pretty mature team that continues to grind through in difficult situations," said center Jeff Withey, one of the team's senior starters. "We know how to get to the free-throw line and play defense to find ways to make up for our bad offense [on nights that KU struggles]. When we get punched, we take the blows and then we punch back."

Kansas has shown that resolve during the past nine days in road victories over No. 11 Kansas State 59-55 and Texas 64-59. Against the Longhorns, the Jayhawks erased a 47-37 deficit in the final 11:22 by offsetting Texas' 12-0 spurt early in the second half with a 15-4 closing surge in crunch time.

Kansas coach Bill Self cited the effort in Austin as an example of what may separate this team from other contenders in a season marked by rampant parity across the NCAA basketball landscape.

"When we settled down we did the things that we should do to give us a chance to win on the road," Self said. "We had some experienced guys playing down the stretch. That makes a difference.

"I don't think that we've done anything in January to make me think we're way ahead of schedule [with this team]. But I do think we're right where I was hoping we would be. We've got a nice team that tries pretty hard, that is learning how to win in our league, learning how to make shots. Those are all very, very positive things."

So is the Jayhawks' big-game experience, thanks to the four senior starters. To put that in perspective, here's a breakdown of seniors in the starting lineups for other notable title contenders: Ohio State (0), Michigan (1), Syracuse (1), Louisville (1), Indiana (2), Arizona (2), Duke (3) and Florida (3).

We all remember Kentucky won last year's title with a collection of one-and-done freshmen no longer in school. But that team was rare. It was more gifted athletically than its competitors.

There is not a team that talented, or that dominant, in college basketball this season. That places a greater focus on intangibles in separating teams in this year's NCAA Tournament. Kansas has the biggest intangible -- experience -- on its side.

It may not be enough to win it all. But it's not going away between now and March, which is why the Jayhawks project as today's best bet to land a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, even if they do not climb to No. 1 in this week's polls.

Withey, a 7-footer who averages 13 points per game and ranks second nationally in blocked shots (4.3 per game), said KU's veterans have an unspoken confidence in tight situations -- as well as a willingness to verbally challenge one another because of their familiarity -- that helps in crunch time.

"It's a little bit of both," Withey said. "We know what to expect if we're down, that a comeback starts one stop at a time. We've been there before and we have Ben. He's a redshirt freshman, so he's been practicing with us forever. We're a mature team."

And one that's well-positioned to ride that advantage deep into this year's NCAA Tournament.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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