Replacing two three-year starters who last season combined to average over 30 points a game would cause most teams to take at least a small step backward.
Kansas, as we’re all aware, is unlike most teams.
The Jayhawks are replacing forward Perry Ellis (16.9 points per game) and guard Wayne Selden Jr. (13.8) the top two scorers from an NCAA Tournament top seed in 2015-16. A team that reached the Elite Eight and fell just short of the Final Four is expected to do just as well if not better this season.
Senior Frank Mason III and junior Devonte’ Graham proved last season that they’re two of the best two-way guards in the country. Fifth-year senior forward Landon Lucas, whose steady play down the stretch helped Kansas win 17 consecutive games, hopes to boost his offensive output.
Carlton Bragg Jr., a 6-foot-10 sophomore, showed flashes last season but needs to step into Ellis’ spot and provide a consistent scoring option. He averaged 3.8 points and 8.9 minutes per game.
“Carlton, who is the same type of scorer — outside-in type scorer,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in comparing Bragg to Ellis. “We’ve got to figure a way to get the ball to the rim and score in tight.”
Josh Jackson, considered the top player in this year’s rookie class, is expected to take over Selden’s starting spot on the perimeter. The 6-foot-8 Jackson has an all-around game and brings a junkyard-dog mentality.
“I do think the pieces have potential to fit,” Self said. “Last year the pieces fit as well as they could fit in my opinion, and we still came up short. This year, if the pieces fit as well, then I think you may have a little bit more talented group that may give you a chance maybe to play better when it counts the most. But certainly it remains to be seen if the pieces can get there yet.”
Starting with Mason, Graham and Jackson, it appears the Jayhawks could have a formidable perimeter game. Add in 6-foot-8 junior Svi Mykhailiuk and 6-foot-5 sophomore Lagerald Vick and don’t be surprised if Self goes against his belief in inside-out offense and tries some “small ball” four-guard lineups.
“I’m becoming more and more comfortable with it,” Self said. “I want to give our guards freedom. I think this will be a team that needs to have balance but I see us being a perimeter-oriented team more so than an interior-oriented team.”
Kansas at a glance
Coach: Bill Self.
Last season: 33-5 overall, 15-3 in Big 12, 1st.
NCAA Tournament: Lost regional final.
Key departures: F Perry Ellis, G Wayne Selden Jr., G Brannen Green, F. Jamari Traylor.
Starters returning: 5-foot-11 Sr. G Frank Mason III, 6-foot-2 Jr. G Devonte’ Graham, 6-foot-10 Sr. F Landon Lucas.
Top returnees: 6-foot-10 Soph. Carlton Bragg Jr., 6-foot-8 Jr. G Svi Mykhailiuk, 6-foot-5 soph. guard Lagerald Vick.
Newcomers: 6-foot-8 Fr. G Josh Jackson, 7-foot Fr. C Udoka Azubuike, 6-foot-8 Fr. F Mitch Lightfoot.
There are few guard duos in the country who can match Mason and Graham in terms of versatility and talent. Jackson should benefit greatly playing with those two. Also, don’t be surprised if sophomore Lagerald Vick and junior Svi Mykhailiuk become key contributors off the bench.
If there’s a concern, it’s here. Self prefers his offense to work inside-out, but in recent years it’s lacked a reliable low-post scorer. Lucas is a reliable rebounder and defender; whatever points he scores are a bonus. Bragg showed flashes last year, but if he doesn’t average double figures as a starter, KU’s offense might suffer.
As mentioned, Vick and Mykhailiuk should be able to provide bench production on the perimeter. The front court needs to develop at least two reliable players out of this trio – freshmen Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightoot along with 6-foot-9 junior Dwight Colbey, a transfer from Ole Miss who sat out last season with a knee injury.
It’s difficult to imagine Kansas not posting its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title. The Jayhawks are just too good to not finish on top. This season’s success will be judged in the NCAA Tournament. After falling just short of the Final Four, this season the Jayhawks hope to take the final step and get a shot at the school’s first national title since 2008.