The 2009-2010 Kansas Jayhawks were labeled the front runners almost as soon as the final buzzer against Michigan State a year prior. A team that had overachieved, developed great chemistry and continued to win in the Big 12 in '09 returned everyone and looked to be adding some seriously talented depth the following year. Experienced, battle tested and poised for a run. That was the conventional wisdom, but how true was that expectation? How experienced was Kansas compared to past champions and how experienced is Kansas compared to the best of the rest in college basketball this year?
By the end of the season the Jayhawks and Bill Self had narrowed down a bench to what appeared to be a solid 8 man rotation. That is Bill Self's philosophy and while in hindsight it may raise some questions, it's worked very well in the past.
Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris made up an interior that included two sophomores and one junior who for all intents and purposes had played two full seasons after spot minutes on the national championship team his freshman year.
The backcourt consists of Tyshawn Taylor, Sherron Collins, Xavier Henry, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed. One senior, two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. When you talk about guys that really have an opportunity to play a major role, you are looking at one senior, a sophomore and a freshman. Like it or not Brady isn't a consistently top caliber player and while Tyrel played very well down the stretch, he's better served as a role player instead of someone to lean on.
That brings us to an eight man rotation featuring one senior, three juniors, three sophomores and a freshman. Half upperclassman and half underclassman. In this instance two of the upperclassman made up arguably the top talent, while the other two were probably on the lower end of the spectrum. That leaves the four underclassman as the Jayhawks meat in the middle and a pretty important piece to any success a team might experience. If we were going to improve significantly over '08-'09, it rested on the shoulders of the three sophs and one frosh. So how does this compare?
In '07-'08 the Jayhawks had a rotation up front that featured two seniors and a sophomore on the interior. The guard rotation consisted of one senior, two juniors and a freshman. That's 5 upperclassman and two underclassman. The bottom level of talent in that seven man rotation might be considered Russell Robinson and Sasha Kaun, both who were afforded opportunities to play at a professional level. Can the same be said for Brady and Tyrel? More experience, less depth and better overall talent.
What about North Carolina, the champion from a year ago. Three seniors, three juniors and a freshman. That same group had their tourney struggles in their early years, much like the Jayhawk team from '07-'08 experienced as underclassman.
We all know the story of Florida in the two prior championships. A junior heavy team that wins a title and all turn away the NBA dollars for another run as seniors.
The conventional thought is that in the early rounds experience doesn't act as a major indicator of success or failure. In the long term however it has been looked at and proven to be a major factor in ultimately winning the entire tourney. If that's the case, does when you lose even matter? If you're team isn't composed and experienced enough to win the whole thing or get to the Final Four an upset is an upset no matter if it happens in the 2nd round or the Elite 8.
Taking the next step to the teams still alive in the tourney still this year. Northern Iowa, the team that upset the Jayhawks plays primarily three seniors, three juniors and sophomore, with two freshman rounding out the minutes. Classic makeup for a mid major ready to pull an upset. The rest...
Michigan State; One senior, three juniors and three sophomores.
Tennesse; Three seniors, two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman.
Ohio State; Three seniors, four juniors and a sophomore all averaging double digit minutes.
Syracuse; Two seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
Butler; Two seniors, two juniors and three sophomores.
Xavier; One senior, three juniors, three sophomores and a freshman.
Kansas State; Three seniors, three juniors, a sophomore and three freshman contributing double digit minutes.
Saint Mary's; Two seniors, one junior, one sophomore and three freshman.
Baylor; Two seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
Purdue; Two seniors, two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
Duke; Three seniors, three juniors and three freshman.
West Virginia; Two seniors, two juniors and three sophomores.
Washington; One senior, three juniors, three sophomores and a freshman.
Cornell; Seven seniors, one junior and a sophomore.
Kentucky; Four freshman, three sophomores, a junior and a senior.
Now obviously John Calipari and Kentucky is a glaring exception to any theory here, but by the same token so it the level of talent being brought into that program. Calipari has a formula for success, and whatever means he's using to achieve that is working.
Beyond that however, there are only 3 teams in the sweet 16 with only one senior contributing minutes and three teams with the more than or the same amount of freshman and sophomores contributing double digit minutes as they have juniors and seniors.
It's not a cut and dry case but it would appear that experience counts for something. Kansas was often said to be experienced, but the numbers don't stack up to the majority of the 16 teams remaining in the tournament.
Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, Sasha Kaun, Darnell Jackson, Julian Wright and company all had the same struggle when they were young and inexperienced. The same scenario plays out every year in college basketball. This is a one year snapshot, but I'm curious what the overall trend is.
Relative to the field still fighting, Kansas wasn't as seasoned. The Jayhawks had talent, but talent alone doesn't win you championships. The Jayhawks were battle tested in the regular season, but they haven't had their backs against the wall in the tourney. Last year the Jayhawks were playing with house money when they lost to the Spartans. This season there was certainly a different level of expectation. Perhaps it was a factor, perhaps it wasn't, that's a question that's hard to answer but certainly interesting to speculate on.