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Kansas prepares to defend Big 12 title yet again

Kansas prepares to defend Big 12 title yet again

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) The first thing you notice about the Kansas basketball team this year is that it's big.

Not in height, though 7-footer Jeff Withey stands out, but in numbers.

There are a lot of players on the roster this season, 17 to be exact, and for the most part they land on the extremes of experience. The main contributors will be either seniors who were part of a national title run last season or wide-eyed freshmen who watched the Final Four from afar.

``We have so much experience, at the same time, we have a lot of freshmen, so it's going to be a fun season,'' said Withey, who emerged last season as a shot-swatting All-America candidate.

``It'll be fun for the older guys to teach the young guys. We have all this experience,'' Withey said. ``The game has slowed down to us - for them it's fast motion - so it'll be fun for us.''

There are several reasons for the unique composition of the team.

All-America forward Thomas Robinson declared for the NBA draft a year early, opening up a scholarship for another newcomer. That's one reason why there are nine freshmen on the roster.

Another reason is that two of them were forced to sit out last season.

Ben McLemore, a talented combo guard, and Jamari Traylor, an athletic power forward, were deemed partial qualifiers by the NCAA and forced to redshirt. They wound up being able to practice the second semester, but they weren't able to participate in games.

Both of them ready to go this season, which officially tips off Friday night with the annual ``Late Night in the Phog'' practice.

``It's totally different when you get under the lights. These guys will be scared to death tomorrow night. Their biggest crowd ever is what, a thousand?'' Jayhawks coach Bill Self said.

``Making mistakes under pressure, people writing about mistakes, the pressures that go along with, some freshmen welcome that and want there. There's pressure playing here.''

There's certainly going to be pressure on Self, too.

He agreed to a restructured contract a few weeks ago that extends through the 2021-22 season and includes a raise to $3.857 million per year. His previous contract ran through June 2018.

Self's new contract includes bonus provisions of $50,000 for conference regular-season titles, $25,000 for winning the conference tournament, $100,000 for earning AP coach of the year, $150,000 for reaching the Final Four and $200,000 for winning the national championship.

Something that the Jayhawks nearly accomplished last season.

Behind the bruising play of Robinson and the often-maddening play of talented guard Tyshawn Taylor, the Jayhawks rolled to another Big 12 championship and all the way to New Orleans.

Kansas eventually ran into mighty Kentucky and its NBA-laden lineup, but a team that many didn't believe was capable of winning its conference had nearly won it all.

Even though Robinson and Taylor are gone, along with role player Connor Teahan, the Jayhawks still return three starters in Withey, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. Super-sub Kevin Young is also back for his senior season after making some key contributions down the stretch.

Then there are all those new faces ready to step up.

McLemore could move directly into the starting lineup after impressing just about everyone in practice last season. Anrio Adams, a guard from Seattle, has shown some ability to handle the ball, while forward Perry Ellis may carry on his shoulders the biggest expectations.

The five-star recruit from Wichita has been committed to the Jayhawks for so long that the anticipation to actual see him on the court has reached a breaking point.

``Just the atmosphere, all these people, I never played in an arena with this many people watching,'' Ellis said, taking solace in the fact that he's not alone.

There are plenty of other freshmen going through the same thing.

Indeed, there will be plenty of new names when the Jayhawks take the court for their first exhibition game Oct. 30 against Emporia State, and when the nation gets to see them play Michigan State on Nov. 13 in Atlanta in just their second regular-season game.

That doesn't mean expectations are any different.

Kansas was picked to win the Big 12 once again Thursday in balloting by league coaches.

``I was probably more surprised with us being picked first this year than us being picked not first in the past. We return some guys, but we lost three of our top six, two of them were pretty good. Those two guys scored 36 a night,'' Self said, referring to Robinson and Taylor.

Then he admitted what everyone has come to expect of the Jayhawks over the years: ``I do think we have a chance to be good by the end.''

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Five observations from Wizards' win over the Lakers, including John Wall's 40 points

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USA Today Sports

Five observations from Wizards' win over the Lakers, including John Wall's 40 points

The Washington Wizards beat the Los Angeles Lakers 128-110 on Sunday night. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Despite disappointing overall, the Wizards have had a few brilliant games this season. Only rarely have they thoroughly demolished an opponent, and before Sunday night, those games were against NBA bottom-dwellers. On Sunday, they finally put it all together from start to finish and overmatched a very good opponent.

The Wizards beat LeBron James and the L.A. Lakers by 18 points. They held James to only 13, the lowest scoring game of his long and otherwise distinguished career against the Wizards. 

James has dominated Washington for a decade-and-a-half, in 49 regular season games and 16 more in the playoffs. He once scored 57. But on this night, Jeff Green and others pushed back and wore him down on the second night of a back-to-back.

While James was off, John Wall was all the way on. He was dominant in transition and in the halfcourt, making easy work of Lonzo Ball, Lance Stephenson and a host of players the Lakers tried on him.

The Wizards snapped a four-game losing streak and moved to 8-6 at Capital One Arena. 

2. This was the best game of the season for Wall and by a good margin. He had it going early and there was nothing the Lakers could do to stop him from scoring and setting up others. 

Everything Wall tried worked. He played with pace, yet was in complete control, seeing passing lanes before they were open and keeping Lakers defenders off-balance.

Wall erupted for 28 points in the first half alone. At one point in the second quarter, he had more points (24) than the Lakers' starting lineup (22).

Wall ended up with a season-high 40 points, 14 assists, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks. He shot a masterful 16-for-27 (59.3%) from the field and 4-for-8 from three.

3. If there is one thing Sam Dekker does really well, it's run the floor. Last season, he ranked fourth in the NBA in average speed. That doesn't mean he's one of the fastest players in the league, it just means he's constantly moving.

Players with that trait generally work well with Wall, who is one of the most gifted and willing passers in the game. Sure enough, Dekker was rewarded.

Wall assisted on four different shots by Dekker in the first half alone and all of them were open looks around the rim. Dekker seems to have good instincts on when to cut and has the athleticism to finish in traffic. 

It has only been four games since he joined the Wizards, but the early returns have been good on Dekker. He finished with a season-high 20 points, just the second time in his career he's reached the 20-point mark.

4. The Wizards were without Otto Porter Jr. for the third consecutive game, as he remains sidelined with a right knee contusion. This was the first time Porter has missed three straight since 2015-16, the year before head coach Scott Brooks took over. 

Porter is usually very good at managing injuries. Sometimes he will leave a game or miss a practice, but always bounces back quickly. This injury, though, has proven to be a stubborn one. 

Brooks said Porter sustained it by bumping knees with Myles Turner of the Pacers back on Dec. 10. The team insists it is just a bad bruise. But those things were believed about Wall's knee injury last season and look at what happened.

5. Porter's absence wasn't the only factor that left the Wizards undermanned in this one. Their trade with the Suns is not yet official, so they didn't have Trevor Ariza available. 

The departure of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers removed two members of their regular rotation. To help fill the void, they brought up three players - Troy Brown Jr., Okaro White and Jordan McRae - from the Capital City Go-Go.

The Wizards also lost forward Markieff Morris in the first half. Morris took a shot to the chin area and left with a neck strain. He went to the locker room after stretching out his hands over and over while on the floor and then on the bench as if he was trying to regain feeling in his fingers.

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Scott Brooks enters Kobe Bryant alongside LeBron James into NBA's 'GOAT' debate

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USA Today Sports

Scott Brooks enters Kobe Bryant alongside LeBron James into NBA's 'GOAT' debate

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- NBA fans and internet inhabitants debate the league’s All-time greatest player relentlessly. The primary side-by-side comparison these days for “GOAT” status centers on Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James. Other legends have supporters. Jordan and James, who made his first appearance in Washington as a member of the Lakers Sunday night, dominate such discussions.

Wizards coach Scott Brooks inferred another former Laker is worthy of such greatest ever talk when answering a question about the expected pro-Los Angeles crowd inside Washington’s arena.

“There are organizations and rightfully so that their crowds are global. You can argue [the Lakers] had the greatest player ever to play the game for 20 years before LeBron got there,” Brooks said.

Do the math. He’s not talking about Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West or Wilt Chamberlain. That’s Kobe Bryant’s music.

“Everybody is a fan of Kobe and now they have LeBron. Now they have another guy who could arguably be the greatest player ever,” Brooks said.

Back it up. Again, many thrust James, a four-time league MVP and three-time NBA champion, into the debate with Jordan, whose cultural reverence exceeds his six titles, 32,292 points scored and countless honors.

Bryant’s résumé is all kinds of impressive. The 20-year veteran and 18-time All-Star passed Jordan as the league’s third-time scorer, and won five championships. Top 5-10 player, perhaps. The GOAT? That’s not an argument often heard beyond loyal Laker fans that grew up during Bryant’s reign. It’s not even clear he’s the best Laker of all-time considering the competition.

Bryant’s career deserves praise. Brooks didn’t go out on the flimsiest of limbs. Still, that’s quite a statement from a longtime coach and former player.

Perhaps the presence of James back in Washington, a place he’s thrived over the years, sparked Brooks’ comment.

“So, [Los Angeles is] going to have fans. Those guys are fun to watch. I love watching LeBron play even when he (scored) 57 (points) last year against us and made 11 of 14 mid-range shots.”

Don’t forget the game-tying banked 3–pointer at the buzzer in regulation during the 2016 regular season. Los Angeles won in overtime, snapping Washington’s 17-game home court winning streak. Brooks hadn’t.

“Even the 3 that [LeBron] sent to overtime with whatever on the clock that he traveled on,” the coach joked.

Clearly, Brooks isn’t over those moments. That alone didn’t lead him to nominate Bryant as perhaps the best ever, although at this moment, maybe. 

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