Finally. After a highly anticipated offseason, four exhibition games in Europe and two recent…
"I think the seniors need to remain your best players - maybe not your most talented but your most reliable," Self explained prior to the season starting.
We've seen that McLemore is more than capable of being this team's leading scorer and he will be the "talent" that everyone will talk about but if Kansas is to duplicate the success of a season ago, it will be because of the stability of five seniors.
That's why if you're celebrating anything at this time of year it should be the contributions made in the last couple of games by Travis Releford and senior center Jeff Withey.
Let's face it, heading into the CBE Classic Travis Releford and Jeff Withey had performed well but after last season, quite frankly people expected more.
The 7-footer Withey had just 44 points total heading into the St. Louis game while Releford was mired in a shooting slump during the first 3 games of the season going 6-23 from the floor and a dismal 0-11 from three-point range.
But a more active and determined Releford brought his game to another level playing in front of his hometown fans, family, and friends at the CBE Classic. He netted a team-best 17 points against Washington State in Game 1 in Kansas City and had 7 steals.
But that was just a prelude to something really special. Against St. Louis Travis put together a half to remember scoring 21 in the first 20 minutes. It was an amazing display that saw Releford score 17 of the Jayhawks' first 28 points. Without reading the scouting report from the Billikens camp you knew the plan was to make Releford beat them.
"I wasn't surprised because i mean coming into this game and you look at my shooting percentage at threes they weren't too good," said Releford referring to the shooting numbers in his first three games. "I mean to see them back off that far it didn't surprise me but my teammates just told me to step up and shoot the ball and i did that and the shots fell."
"Travis was unbelievable the first half. They made a decision not to guard him," continued Self. "He was unbelievable and made them pay."
With the added motivation of playing in his home city and the lack of respect St. Louis showed him Releford went on to score 23 and claim the MVP honors for the Jayhawks in KC.
"Of course, of course," answered Releford when asked if the Billikens game plan angered him. "Any player who is defended that way should feel disrespected."
It was Releford's first-half performance that created a domino effect in the most positive of manners. In the second half it was the Withey show. Withey finished with 25 points and he and Releford accounted for 31 of KU's 39 first half points. Withey also added 7 blocks and 2 steals on his most active night of the season.
"In the second half the reason Jeff had a big game was because they guarded Travis. Based on stats and looking at it I would say that would be a very smart way to play us and Travis made them pay the first half. I thought Trav was great. It's good for him to get the lid off the basket so to speak and I thought Jeff was really good tonight on both ends."
And that's something Kansas never takes for granted.
"We appreciate it," said Releford of Withey and his ability at both ends. "Us players (and) coaches we see and know what Jeff does for the team and he helps out a lot. He takes a lot of pressure off of guards defending because we know if we get beat then we have Jeff back there to alter the guy's shot and we definitely appreciate that a whole lot."
Withey lamented after the game that his 7 blocks well, they weren't 10. He likes and wants his shot-blocking ability to reach the double-digit mark. While Withey remains a motivated and formidable on the defensive end, his ability to generate offense is big this season. Self likes to play from the inside-out and it will help to have Withey as a true back-to-the-basket threat. It showed how easily the offense can flow even against a defensive-minded team like St. Louis when the perimeter and interior games are both clicking in the same night.
"Travis did a great job in the first half he made it so in the second half they had to worry about him and that kind of led to me being able to have one-on-one situations and kind of opened up the post that's what made it so easy the second half," said Withey.
Self has been all over Withey this year to be more aggressive and against St. Louis he looked aggressive and confident. But Jeff's best performance of the season didn't exempt him from a friendly jab from his coach. After Self was asked about the position Jeff had "muscled" himself into during this game he laughed and offered, "First time I've ever heard the word 'muscle' when speaking about Jeff."
But the fact is when Withey does good work before he gets the ball and his teammates find him he's clearly an offensive weapon. Withey has put a lot of work in on improving his moves with his back to the basket and facing up.
"He worked himself in there pretty tight and caught the ball with both feet in the paint a couple of times. But really he made good post moves," said Self. "He caught it on the perimeter and put it down and up-and-undered the guy. Those are things that he works on and I thought he did a good job."
Though Elijah Johnson hasn't found his full scoring stride yet he is distributing the ball nicely and running the show efficiently. Johnson had a season-high 9 assists against St. Louis. No one believes that a couple of single-digit scoring outputs are anything to worry about. Johnson is still getting back in a rhythm after offseason knee surgery and still learning a knew role.
"I don't think he's quite got it to the point where he knows that he can be more aggressive. In the past when he's been aggressive he's been aggressive to try to score. Now I don't think he really understands that him forcing help on the first side gets a guy a better shot on the second or third side. He's kind of too stationary for me. But I think he's doing fine he just hasn't made shots yet so the lid will come off for him but I think he's playing fine. I don't think he's really gotten in a rhythm yet."
Certainly not in full stride yet but no one can deny Kansas is improving each week.
"I think we got better i don't think there's any question about that," Self continued. "We got better over here that was a big key to come over here and you gotta try to win two games. We needed to get better and we accomplished that I think."
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