Last season, Kansas had seemingly two offensive ideas: dump it down to Thomas Robinson, or let Tyshawn Taylor create from the top of the key. This year however, the team spreads the ball around like few Kansas teams ever have. In fact, I have and will again compare them to the 2008 team in that regard.
In the game against Temple, Travis Releford sat for much of the second half with foul trouble. As a result, Khalif Wyatt was able to go off a bit in the second half and lead an Owl comeback. In the game against Ohio State, Jeff Withey committed a couple fouls and was on the bench for an extended period of time. Not only was the interior defense affected, but the offense was as well. Thankfully, Ben McLemore had one of his best games in a Kansas uniform to help the Jayhawks to a huge road win.
The point is, every player on this team is valuable in his own way. But is there one who is more valuable than the others?
The easy answer is Jeff Withey. The Senior is the best shotblocker in the country, averaging 5.2 per game and with a block percentage of 19.7%. But he's also raised his offensive production: he's gone from taking 15.7% of the available shots when he is on the floor to taking 22.8% of them this year. And he's shooting better from the floor than he did last season. As a result, he's gone from averaging 9 to 13.4 points per game. He's a reliable offensive player who can also hit free throws, a luxury for a big man, but he's the last line of defense for the best defensive team in the country, and he's helped bail the team out of a jam or two already this year.
Or could it be Travis Releford? The Senior is quite possibly the best perimeter defender in the country (he's the best I have seen, but I can't watch everyone and I also admit I am no scout.). Over the past couple seasons there is example after example of an opposing player getting hot and then immediately stopping once Releford switches onto him. Releford has always been effective offensively, but this year he has gone to another level: he currently leads the nation in both eFG and TS% (seriously, he's shooting 73.8% from two, 47.4% from three and 88.2% from the line. That's insane.)
Everyone knew that Freshman Ben McLemore had a ton of talent. What they didn't know is that he'd also be the perfect guard for Bill Self's system. He is unselfish to the point where Self had to tell him to shoot the ball more and convince him of how good he is. He's blossomed into the go to guy on this year's team, sporting a 23.6% usage rate, and he's been able to do so without taking bad shots and without going through long cold stretches. He is shooting over 50% from two, 40% from three and almost 90% from the line, good numbers for anyone but great numbers for someone who is the go to guy on a top 5 team.
Elijah Johnson is shooting 36% from three this year and 52% from two. He's taken a leadership role on this year's team, like a Senior should, and he's posted an assist rate north of 30% while turning it over "only" around 25% of the time. Johnson has started to play like the guard we all thought he could be when he was recruited, and with a bit of a question mark at the backup point guard spot, that makes him incredibly valuable.
Or is there a question mark? Naadir Tharpe has grown into a very effective backup, sporting a 28% assist rate and just 20% turnover rate. He has developed his jumper enough to where he is shooting over 40% from three, and he's smart enough to not press the action when he doesn't have to. He won't ever be the go to guy as a Jayhawk, but he's a very good complimentary piece who ensures that Kansas doesn't suffer from a drop in performance when Johnson goes to the bench.
Last, but certainly not least, Kevin Young has been incredible this year. The Senior is shooting 64% from two, is a top 100 rebounder in both offensive and defensive rebounding, and has turned into an effective interior passer. He is a prototypical bench energy guy, except he's also good enough to be starting. That's an excellent combination, and it makes Young extremely valuable. But is he the most valuable?