Over the years something has happened for Bill Self and Kansas. They've earned the benefit of the doubt. The Jayhawks have now won or shared 9 consecutive Big 12 basketball titles dating back to 2005. That streak is something that is unparalleled in major conferences during the modern era. Because of that Bill Self and Kansas tend to find themselves viewed as the favorite pretty much year in and year out regardless of the changes to the Jayhawk roster.
Next year however, is shaping up to present a bit of a perfect storm. First off the Jayhawks lose five starters. Four of those starters were seniors and one of those is looking like a top three pick in the NBA draft. That's a load of talent and experience that is hard to replace immediately. Fortunately Bill Self has a great recruiting class coming in and they'll be tested early and often in the non conference as they prepare for league play beginning in January.
The second piece to that storm is an announcement expected today from Marcus Smart regarding his NBA plans. The shocking part of all of this is that is appears that Smart will return. A player widely considered a top five selection might shun the NBA money and return to Stillwater and lead a Cowboy team that will boast a host of talented returning players that could easily be the favorite for the Big 12 title in 2013-2014.
How can Smart turn down the opportunity? Who knows and who cares. If it actually happens then it will be a bit of a bittersweet moment in my mind because I wish we had an opportunity to see more players like Smart further along in their careers. It could prove to be a mistake financially or it could prove to be invaluable in preparing him for a long NBA career and an even more established running start.
Critics have pointed to the 'loaded' class that he'll be contending with next year and the fact that he only stands to be exposed further by staying. That may be the case, but as a college basketball fan first and as someone who honestly couldn't care less about the NBA, I love this potential move. I love the decision even if it means Oklahoma State presents a HUGE challenge to my own Kansas Jayhawks because it means the Big 12 is going to have added star power and I've never viewed that as a negative for Kansas.
Kansas has certainly had teams challenge and compete, but with Smart it could feel very different. This wouldn't be a situation where someone is chasing Kansas, this could be Kansas and whoever else chasing Oklahoma State. Granted you have to beat the champ to be the champ and we all love it when the ESPN talking heads say that the Big 12 title runs through Lawrence, but a Cowboy team with Smart, Nash, Brown and Cobbins all returning sets the Cowboys up as the most talented returning group in the league.
Smart has yet to announce anything officially so he could still step to the podium today and make the announcement that everyone was expecting two days ago. But if he follows the road less traveled (Jacque Vaughn reference!), Bill Self will have his hands full from the get go as Oklahoma State would have to be viewed as the Big 12 favorite and the team that could finally put an end to the Jayhawks nine year run atop the Big 12 standings. Of course they don't play the games on paper so the final verdict will come next March.