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Jayhawks ready for Western Kentucky

By ARNE GREEN

Special to The Hays Daily News

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Perhaps Bill Self is the wrong person to ask about the importance of experience to NCAA Tournament success.

After all, his Jayhawks reached the championship game last year, only to lose to a Kentucky team that started three freshmen and a pair of sophomores.

But all else being equal, Self is more than happy to put four seniors on the floor when KU faces Western Kentucky at 8:50 tonight in its tournament opener at Sprint Center.

"You know, experience is great, but talent will trump experience," said Self, whose Jayhawks (29-5) are the top seed in the South Regional. "Experienced talent is the best.

"Hopefully that will play out to be true for us."

Three of the seniors - guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, plus center Jeff Withey - started on the 2012 national runner-up that was dominated by All-Americans Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. The fourth, forward Kevin Young, was a prominent reserve.

And though they didn't play starring roles a year ago, all four of them have been around the NCAA Tournament their entire careers, usually as a lofty seed.

"You dance on the biggest stage," Johnson said of last year's title game. "There's no need to be nervous."

Releford, the team's defensive stopper and the third-leading scorer at 11.5 points per game, said the seniors try to be a calming influence on what otherwise is a young team. Freshman guard Ben McLemore leads the Jayhawks in scoring with 16.4 points a game while freshman Perry Ellis (5.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and sophomore Naadir Tharpe (5.5 ppg, 3.0 assists) are the top backups.

"I think it's very important because the key to our team all season is our upperclassmen," Releford said. "We've got underclassmen stepping up to help us a bunch, but going into the tournament all the seniors, we know what it takes to get to the Final Four.

"We're helping these young guys out and hoping they just buy in."

McLemore, who likely will exit with the seniors after the tournament, said he's all ears when the veterans share their experiences.

"They've been here," he said. "Especially last year, they went all the way to the championship game, so they have a lot of experience going into this NCAA Tournament.

"I want to get a lot of advice from them and try to feed off them and just play my game."

Even among each other, the seniors have a unique relationship. Withey, the 7-foot shot blocker, and Young are fifth-year transfers while Releford took a redshirt year after his freshman season.

"The four seniors, it's so weird; we have a chain reaction," Johnson said. "I know how to calm Travis down, Kevin knows how to calm me down, Jeff knows how to calm Kevin down and Travis knows how to calm Jeff down, but those routes don't really mix.

"I don't really go to Jeff to calm Jeff down - that's something I expect Travis to do. Don't too many people try to calm me down, but the one person that's never hesitated to do that has always been Kevin."

Johnson and Releford are the most vocal of the four, while Young provides energy and Withey a reliable wall on the back line.

"We just open ears to each other and we've got different angles, different points of view, so it makes it easier for us," Johnson said. "I'm actually the youngest one our of all of us and I'm not trying to toot my own horn but I feel like I'm pretty respected as far as being intelligent.

"And with me being the youngest one, that speaks more to them. They're just not as vocal."

In Western Kentucky (20-15), the Jayhawks will face a team that went 10-10 in the Sun Belt Conference but qualified by winning four straight in the postseason tournament. The Hilltoppers are led by sophomore guard T.J. Price with 15.3 points per game, 6-6 sophomore forward George Fant with 12.9 points and 6.8 rebounds, and senior guard Jamal Crook with 12 points and 4.0 assists.

A No. 1 seed has never lost to a 16 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams and Self is counting on his veterans to help keep the Jayhawks from being the first.

"Our seniors have been great with our young guys, particularly Ben, making sure that we're focused, eliminating distractions to give us the best chance," he said.