When Kansas head coach Bill Self looked down his bench against Duke last week, his first two options were former walk-ons, his third option was a freshman point guard, and his fourth option was a 6-8, 185-pound forward that doesn't really fit as a 3 or a 4.
The Jayhawks lost the game 68-61, senior Tyshawn Taylor turned the ball over 11 times (on 48 percent of the possessions he used) in 38 minutes, and Self had no option but to play Taylor as his bench turned in an unspectacular performance of their own. Sixth man Conner Teahan was 0-for-1 in 13 minutes; backup big man Justin Wesley had zeros next to his name in every statistical category but fouls (he fouled out in ten minutes); freshman point guard Naadir Tharpe traveled before he could attempt his only shot and didn't play in the second half; and forward Kevin Young never left the bench.
"I really wanted to win that championship in Maui and I think Coach Krzyzewski did too, because his bench played less than ours," Self said this week.
That's not exactly true: Duke's bench played 30 minutes, the same as KU's. But it was a Duke reserve, freshman point guard Tyler Thorton, who made two of the biggest shots of the game -- the go-ahead three with just over a minute left and a 24-foot end-of-shot-clock heave that sealed the game with 20 seconds left -- while KU's bench left much to be desired.
The rotation hasn't changed, but the talent has
Self's never been one to go deep on his bench. In his first eight seasons at Kansas, his ninth man has played more than 20 percent of the available minutes just twice. He usually sticks to an eight-man rotation and tightens that up a bit in March. On the 2008 national championship team, for example, Self used a nine-man rotation for most of the regular season, then opted to use seven players for a majority of the minutes in the NCAA tournament. Self strayed from that strategy only once, playing freshman center Cole Aldrich in the national semifinals. That worked all right, as Aldrich ended up being a defensive stopper on All-American Tyler Hansbrough.
Aldrich ended up an All-American himself, but he was the ninth man for most of the 2007-08 season. That's what separates this 2011-12 group in Lawrence from many of their predecessors. Self's still giving similar minutes to his bench: Teahan plays 48.5 percent of KU's minutes, Wesley 37.5 and Tharpe 24.5. But instead of looking down the bench at future All-Americans, Self's choosing from former scout teamers.
Teahan's never had a minutes share greater than 5.9 percent and he took the almost unheard of step of redshirting as a senior last year so he could play this season. He got off to an incredible start, making 17 of 21 shots in two exhibition games and the season opener against Towson. Teahan then made his first two threes against Kentucky on November 15. Early in the second half of that game, Teahan pump faked and went to the baseline to attempt a 15-foot jumper. Kentucky's Anthony Davis swatted Teahan's shot, and he's been spooked ever since, making just two shots in 11 attempts.
Tharpe was off to a similarly great start in the preseason when he filled in for Taylor, who served a suspension for undisclosed reasons. The freshman has made only one of nine threes and is turning the ball over on 28.5 percent of the possessions he's used. If there's a bright spot it's Wesley, who was the tenth man at Lamar as a freshman in 2010 before transferring to KU. The half brother of former Jayhawk Keith Langford is not nearly the offensive weapon as his older brother, but Wesley has provided a solid defensive presence and when he does touch the ball, he's incredibly efficient (he has a 153.5 offensive rating). The only problem is that Wesley can't keep his hands off the opposition: he averages 11 fouls per 40 minutes.
Where'd the talent go?
Sure, these no-names are struggling, but the fact that they even have to play is the larger issue. The mass exodus of the Morris twins and Josh Selby to the NBA after last season didn't help, as all three would push capable starters to the bench. But Self is no stranger to needing to reload, as the Jayhawks have had nine players leave early since 2007. What was missing this year and last (outside of Selby) was a deep and talented recruiting class.
Self landed an OK class, by his standards, but Canadian big man Braeden Anderson was not approved for aid by the Big 12 conference and deemed ineligible, and he took his services to Fresno State. Then in October, KU was informed that freshmen Jamari Traylor and Ben McLemore had been declared ineligible to play this season by the NCAA clearinghouse. Traylor, a three-star forward, would have provided depth up front, and McLemore, who teammates said in the preseason is KU's best NBA prospect, would have eventually competed with Travis Releford for a starting position.
What's left is a team that will rely greatly on production from its starters. That was one problem in the Maui final, when Taylor was in desperate need of some relief.
"We've got to get in better shape," Taylor said. "It was tough playing three games in three days with a couple practices. We were tired. I think it showed toward the end of that Duke game that we were really tired."
Taylor is playing 84.5 percent of KU's minutes and that's not an oddity for an experienced KU guard. Sherron Collins played 87 percent of available minutes in 2008-09 and Aaron Miles played 84 percent in 2003-04. KU fans should not be too concerned, as Taylor's performance against Duke was an outlier. He entered the game with 15 assists and seven turnovers in four games, and he had an offensive rating above 126 in each of KU's first three games and a 109 against UCLA.
Taylor might see his minutes drop to help bring Tharpe along, beginning tonight at Allen Fieldhouse against Florida Atlantic, but come March, he'll be playing a majority of the minutes again. And if the Jayhawks can stay healthy, their lack of talent on the bench should be something they can overcome.
C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmoore4.