Ordinarily a third-round exit from the NCAA tournament, especially at the hands of bitter in-state rival Wichita State, would be enough to send Jayhawk Nation into a long summer funk. The pain didn’t seem to linger too long this time, however, and there is every reason to believe the Jayhawks will make a deeper run in the 2016 postseason.
The optimism is based, in large part, on a Top 10 recruiting class that arrives to join seven of the top nine players from last season, led by Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr.
Kansas also conquered the world over the summer, as head coach Bill Self took a team comprised mostly of Jayhawks to the World University Games in South Korea, and returned home with the gold medal. Representing the United States, Self and the Jayhawks won eight games in 11 days, earning valuable experience and getting a head start on the upcoming experience.
Kansas had its worst record in conference play during the Self era during 2014-15. But that 13-5 mark was still good enough for the Jayhawks to win their 11th straight Big 12 championship. That’s a remarkable achievement in this age of parity in college basketball. The Jayhawks are talented enough to make it 12-for-12 in the Big 12 this upcoming season, but it won’t be easy.
Key Offseason Departures: Kelly Oubre (forward), Cliff Alexander (center).
The Jayhawks are able to recruit at an elite level. Self and his staff have decided to pursue the top players in the nation and often find themselves going head-to-head with programs such as Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, for example. That comes with reward and risk.
Oubre and Alexander both decided to become early entrants into the NBA draft and left Kansas after one season. That’s part of the risk.
It was expected with Alexander when he arrived as one of the most coveted recruits in the nation. No one knew at the beginning of the season that he would essentially have no choice. Alexander was in street clothes for the final eight games as the Jayhawks dealt with the distraction of an NCAA investigation into improper benefits. He had struggled to adjust to the structure of the college game prior to that, averaging 7.1 points and 5.3 rebound and showing only glimpses of his massive potential. He went undrafted but signed with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Oubre struggled to get playing time early in the season but developed into a key part of the Jayhawk puzzle last season. He averaged 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds and took the plunge into the pros despite needing another season in the college ranks. His ability to defend overcame his poor passing and inconsistent shooting. He was taken with the No. 15 pick and is now on the Washington Wizards roster.
Key additions: Cheick Diallo (center), Carlton Bragg, Jr. (forward), Lagerald Vick (guard).
Diallo is the difference-maker in this recruiting class. With Diallo, the Jayhawks are much more than a preseason Top 25 team. They become a national championship contender with Final Four expectations. Kansas hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2012 and hasn’t won a national championship since 2008.
The question is whether or not Diallo will be allowed to play. Kansas is still waiting to hear from the NCAA Eligibility Center. The NCAA has been taking a look at players Diallo’s high school, Our Savior New American. Self keeps saying he expects Diallo to be cleared, but Kansas had to present more information to the NCAA in October.
Diallo was ranked the No. 7 recruit in the nation by ESPN. There is more certainty about his game and some say he would be the player everyone expected Alexander to be – and maybe more. He is being allowed to practice.
“We’ve never had a big guy that could run like this,” Self told KUSports.com. “It’d be nice to have a mindset to play at a much faster tempo than we have in the past … Cheick forces a pace that nobody has ever forced here. He can create pace better than any point guard we’ve ever had here.
“I didn’t say the best offensive player, but running rim to rim I think he’ll drag everybody along with him. I also think it forces us to play at a faster pace when your big guys run like that.”
Diallo would be a great addition to the front line that includes Ellis and will have Bragg coming off the bench. Bragg’s recruitment was closely watched and Kansas fans know the 6-9 stretch four fits Self’s style of play perfectly. Bragg will battle Jamari Traylor for playing time while preparing for the future.
Vick reclassified from the class of 2016 to 2015 and is another big part of KU’s future plans. The 6-5 guard is extremely athletic and solid on the offensive floor. Self says Vick just needs confidence and time to learn the game.
Bragg and Vick both got significant minutes in the World University Games.
2015-16 Kansas basketball schedule
11/4/2015 Pittsburg State Lawrence, Kan. 7 p.m.
11/10/2015 Fort Hays State Lawrence, Kan. 7 p.m.
11/13/2015 Northern Colorado Lawrence, Kan. 7 p.m.
11/17/2015 Michigan State Chicago, Ill. 9 p.m.
Maui Jim Maui Invitational
11/23/2015 Chaminade Maui, Hawaii 8 p.m.
11/24/2015 UCLA/UNLV Maui, Hawaii 9 p.m. or 3:30 p.m.
11/25/2015 TBA Maui, Hawaii TBA
12/1/2015 Loyola (Md.) Lawrence, Kan. 7 p.m.
12/5/2015 Harvard Lawrence, Kan. 2:15 p.m.
12/9/2015 Holy Cross Lawrence, Kan. 7 p.m.
Kansas City Shootout
12/12/2015 Oregon State Kansas City, Mo. 7 p.m.
12/19/2015 Montana Lawrence, Kan. 1 p.m.
12/22/2015 San Diego State San Diego, Calif. 10 p.m.
12/29/2015 UC Irvine Lawrence, Kan. 8 p.m.
1/2/2016 Baylor Lawrence, Kan. 3 p.m.
1/4/2016 Oklahoma Lawrence, Kan. 8 p.m.
1/9/2016 Texas Tech Lubbock, Texas 8 p.m.
1/12/2016 West Virginia Morgantown, W. Va. 6 p.m.
1/16/2016 TCU Lawrence, Kan. 1 p.m.
1/19/2016 Oklahoma State Stillwater, Okla. 6 p.m.
1/23/2016 Texas Lawrence, Kan. 1 p.m.
1/25/2016 Iowa State Ames, Iowa 8 p.m.
Big 12/SEC Challenge
1/30/2016 Kentucky Lawrence, Kan. TBA
2/3/2016 Kansas State Lawrence, Kan. 8 p.m.
2/6/2016 TCU Fort Worth, Texas 11 a.m.
2/9/2016 West Virginia Lawrence, Kan. 6 p.m.
2/13/2016 Oklahoma Norman, Okla. 1 p.m.
2/15/2016 Oklahoma State Lawrence, Kan. 8 p.m.
2/20/2016 Kansas State Manhattan, Kan. 5 p.m.
2/23/2016 Baylor Waco, Texas 7 p.m.
2/27/2016 Texas Tech Lawrence, Kan. 11 a.m. or 1 p.m.
2/29/2016 Texas Austin, Texas 8 p.m.
3/5/2016 Iowa State Lawrence, Kan. TBA
Big 12 Championship
3/9-12/2016 Big 12 Championship Kansas City, Mo. TBA
Playing in the Big 12 guarantees the Jayhawks a tough schedule every season. With Iowa State and Oklahoma also viewed as potential Top 10 teams, the Jayhawks know who will be trying to knock them off the top perch in the league. Baylor and West Virginia are also Top 25 candidates. Self thinks the Big 12 may be tougher than ever and that’s saying something after the past few seasons.
That doesn’t scare Self away from an aggressive philosophy in the non-conference schedule, though. As usual, Kansas will be featured in many of the top early season games of the season. There is a Nov. 17 date with Michigan State in the Champions Classic to prove that point. Then the Jayhawks head to the Maui Invitational where the field includes UNLV, UCLA, Indiana, Wake Forest, St. John’s and Vanderbilt.
Kansas also plays Harvard, Holy Cross, Oregon State, Montana, San Diego State before Big 12 play begins.
But the most highly anticipated regular-season game is part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge and has John Calipari’s Kentucky team visiting Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence on Jan. 30. These old rivals, two of the greatest programs in college basketball history, should put on quite a show.
KU fans hoping to get their first glimpse of this new version of the Jayhawks will have to wait an extra day if the World Series returns to Kansas City for a sixth game. The Nov. 4 exhibition game against Pittsburg State would be delayed one night in order not to conflict with Game 7 of the Mets-Royals series.
“Many of our Jayhawk fans will want to attend or watch Game 7 next Wednesday, if it goes that far, and we don’t want them to have to make a choice,” Self said in a statement. “We hope the Royals wrap it up in New York, but if they don’t we’ll be ready to move our game.”
Preview and Prediction
It has become a rite of passage celebrating the start of a new college basketball season. Big 12 fans want to know when Self’s streak of conference championships will end. Kansas will be pursuing its 12th straight regular season conference championship and the accomplishment is finally being recognized as one of the greatest in college basketball history.
The Jayhawks are seriously chasing UCLA’s 13-year run of excellence in the Pac-10 under John Wooden from 1967-1979. Nothing against what the Bruins did but, this is an age of parity and balance in college hoops. UCLA was just plain dominant. Self keeps winning through more frequent roster changes and challenges from a variety of teams in the Big 12.
Kansas is favored to get No. 12 in a poll of the conference coaches. The Jayhawks received nine votes for first place and 81 overall points. Oklahoma was second with 70. Iowa State had 68 points and Self’s vote for champion (since he can’t vote for his own team).
In the USA Today Coaches preseason poll, Kansas is fifth. Iowa State seventh, and Oklahoma eighth. The Sooners are picked second in the Big 12 and Iowa State third.
“It kind of seems unreal to be unanimous (to win the Big 12) when you’ve got preseason seventh and eighth ranked teams in the country (in the conference),” Self said. “But that’s fine. It’s probably based more on what teams have done in the past than what the potential of this team is. But I think we’ll be in the game. But certainly, the league is awesome.”
Much of the optimism stems from the team’s summer trip to Korea. Winning that gold medal against some of the finest teams in the world allowed Self to figure out many things about his team for next season.
Guard Wayne Selden Jr. averaged 19.3 points and was the outstanding player for the Jayhawks. He has become a different type of scorer and his play visibly raised his confidence. He should be the type of perimeter threat that thrives in Self’s offense. Frank Mason, KU’s most valuable player last season, will start at the point and Devonte’ Graham is expected to move into the shooting guard spot.
Forward Perry Ellis, who struggled with his efficiency as a junior, is back for his senior season. He would benefit the most from the addition of Diallo. Instead of being limited to play on the block, Ellis would have the freedom to move around and he has improved his shooting range.
Self will also have the advantage of great depth. Swingman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk should have an increased role as a sophomore. Brannen Greene can give KU instant offense off the bench when he lights it up from 3-point range. Landen Lucas, Jamari Traylor and Hunter Mickelson give the Jayhawks size and power inside. Mickelson was the most pleasant surprise of the World University Games, moving into a starting role and becoming the team’s fourth leading scorer.
There should be great motivation for this team to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament – something that hasn’t happened the last two seasons. Diallo is the key. With him on the court, the Jayhawks could capture a 12th conference title and then make a run to the Elite Eight or Final Four.