During Self's tenure at the University of Kansas, his teams could be divided into two groups: the first group would be those teams that feature a true rim-protecting center. Cole Aldrich, Jeff Withey, and Joel Embiid fit this bill. These teams have the defensive advantage of a taller shot blocker both locking down their man on defense as well as erasing mistakes caused by defensive breakdowns on the perimeter. It is without a doubt a nice luxury to have.
The second group would be those teams that instead feature a pair of athletic power forwards in the starting line-up. The Morris Twins in '11 or Darrell Arthur & Darnell Jackson in '08. In fact, I would consider those the two most talented of Self's Kansas teams (no disrespect to the 2012 runner-up team). Those teams had more traditional shot blocking centers off the bench (Withey in '11, Sasha Kaun & Aldrich in '08), but the team was able to play at a more dynamic pace with two power forwards as starters garnering most of the minutes.
With this in mind we turn an eye to next year's team, and in all likelihood the team will be looking to start two players in the post that are both more in the power forward mold than having one of them being that of a true center. One of those spots is most likely to be filled by returning starter Perry Ellis. With the loss of Joel Embiid, the second spot is open to competition.
Assuming Self does not opt for a traditional center, the last starting spot will almost certainly go to Cliff Alexander, the top incoming freshman from Self's latest recruiting haul.
Alexander comes in as the highest ranked and probably most decorated big man Self has ever landed. The list of accolades he garnered in high school includes being the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, Mr. Basketball USA, a McDonald's All-American, co-MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic, a participant at the Nike Hoop Summit, and led Curie High School to the Chicago Public League city championship (which was later forfeited due to several players being academically ineligible). During his time at Curie, Alexander played against some of the best players in the country.
It's pretty easy to see that while Self might have some options with which to play a more traditional center, Alexander is obviously more talented and warrants Self playing a bit smaller. Alexander measured at 6'8" (in shoes) at the Nike Hoop Summit, so he is definitely too short to be considered a center.
However, just because his height projects him as more of a power forward, don't discount him from having a modicum of rim protecting ability. He has a wingspan of 7 foot 3 ½ inches. Contrast that with Ellis, who at the same height has a wingspan of 6 foot 10 inches. Alexander's standing reach is 9 feet, also 5 inches more than Ellis who has been measured to have a standing reach of 8 feet 7 inches.
These are important distinctions, rather than simply basing everything on height. After all, I've never seen anyone block a shot with the top of their head. Given the added wingspan and reach, expect Alexander to play taller than his junior counterpart. A quick glimpse at any Alexander highlight package will undoubtedly include multiple blocks, hopefully a skill that will translate early in his collegiate career.
The other thing that is impossible to ignore when watching Alexander is the sheer power and athleticism he uses to attack the basket and the glass. In high school, if he was within 5 feet of the basket, a dunk was the outcome.
Of course, he might not have quite so easy a time powering to the rim at the D-1 level. And Alexander does not possess much in the way of a jump shot yet, so his offense could be limited early on.
A three-man post rotation was the norm until a season ago. The fourth was only getting scraps. Think of Cole Aldrich in '08 not a part of the regular rotation. He got into many games, but not with any regularity. Thomas Robinson in '10, Jeff Withey in '11. Most times the three primary post players have been so much better, and the drop off to the fourth so steep, that any other post players on roster have had to wait their turn. So under different circumstances I would argue that the rotation could be Ellis, Alexander, Traylor, and stop there.
However, unless Alexander's defensive prowess is greater than we've been led to believe, there appears to be an opening for Hunter Mickelson. If Self decides during games that he needs a bit more defense down low, he will likely turn to the Arkansas transfer. This isn't to say Mickelson can step in and provide Aldrich/Withey level rim protection. But during the '11-'12 season, Mickelson averaged 2.3 bpg for the Razorbacks as a freshman. The following season his numbers took a dive with new coach Mike Anderson's arrival. Jayhawk fans are very familiar with Anderson's style of play, and I think most are of the thinking that Mickelson simply did not fit that style.
So after sitting a year per transfer rules, Mickelson becomes eligible this season and could provide a defensive boon to a frontcourt full of power forwards. On offense, he has been described as someone who can shoot from out to 18 feet. At the team banquet this past spring, Self lavished praise on Mickelson as an effective scorer. If the offensive output isn't a significant drop off from Ellis, Alexander, or even Traylor, Mickelson could force his way onto the court for decent chunks of minutes.
Landon Lucas looks to be the odd man out in the post. He was always projected to be a project, and will only be a red-shirt sophomore. For now, he is most likely a useful big body in practice and insurance against injury.
Prediction: Alexander gains the final starting spot alongside Ellis in the post. Mickelson flushes out the big man rotation to 4 and sees minutes probably most in line with those we saw from Tarik Black last year (once he was relegated to a bench role).