A few things about Kansas must drive the rest of the Big 12 Conference absolutely crazy.
Start with the fact that KU is the consensus pick to win the conference – again. No surprise there. Then coach Bill Self hints that the Jayhawks might be better than they were last season. Well, last season they finished 33-5 and were one step away from the Final Four when they lost to eventual national champion Villanova in the Elite Eight.
Better than that?
After losing Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, Jr., Jamari Traylor, Hunter Mickelson, Cheick Diallo, and Brannen Greene?
Those who know Self realize when he says his team “might” be better, he actually believes the Jayhawks “will” be better. Self prefers a subtle smokescreen.
“We’re going to miss two key starters and, of course, some depth behind that, but I do think the pieces have potential to fit,” Self said during media day at Kansas last month.
“Last year the pieces fit as well as they could fit, and we still came up short [of the national championship].
“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 to play better when it counts the most. But certainly it remains to be seen if the pieces can get there yet.”
Self’s uncertainty won’t generate any sympathy within the Top 25. The Jayhawks are No. 3 in the Associated Press preseason poll, trailing only Duke and Kentucky.
That brings us to one of the other things that frustrates opponents: Self’s continued success at recruiting elite players. The new big man on the Lawrence campus is 6-foot-8 wing man Josh Jackson, the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country.
Readers will find Jackson on the cover of the USA Today College Basketball Edition, pictured in his uniform sitting in the Allen Fieldhouse bleachers with his accompanying quote, “We’re trying to go undefeated.”
That attracted just a bit of attention. The Jayhawks are already providing the biggest story line in college basketball this season as they pursue their 13th consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship. Kansas fans are obsessed with the 12 rings Self has produced since arriving in Lawrence in 2003. One more title would match the record set by John Wooden at UCLA.
Going undefeated is an entirely different matter. Jackson tried to diffuse the talk when he met with local Kansas media.
“I wasn’t saying we were going to win every game,” Jackson said. “I was just saying, you know, that’s where we’re setting the bar. That’s our goal. That’s what we want to do.
“But could we win every game this year? It’s possible. We’ve got the team to do it. Not likely, but we’re going to shoot for it. Might as well try.”
Self rolled his eyes at that comment and said, “There you go again.”
Self calls Jackson a fierce competitor and a “team-first” player. In many ways, this reminds Kansas fans of Andrew Wiggins’ arrival. Wiggins had an outstanding freshman season but the Jayhawks fell short of their team goals. Wiggins left after one year for the NBA and his career is taking off.
There is a hope that Jackson will exit – whenever that might be – with a different legacy in terms of team accomplishments. Kansas last won a national championship in 2008 and hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2012.
Jackson, filling the spot left by Selden, will add his enormous talent to a backcourt already considered among the best in the nation. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham return for another season. They can control a game with their ball-handling, shooting and defensive ability. Their leadership will be a key to KU’s success.
“Frank is the pit bull type, he gets on guys a lot,” Graham said “That’s one of his ways; making them mad to make them play harder. I just kind of try to coach guys. A lot of the freshmen we have don’t know certain things and I just try to help them out.”
Self doesn’t like to change his ways, but without a dominant back-to-the-basket player, expect the Jayhawks to use a four-guard lineup quite often.
This may be a breakout season for guard Svi Mykhailiuk, who has two years experience but is only 19 years old. He showed flashes of his outstanding perimeter shooting last season. The other possibility is more time for Lagerald Vick, who had an outstanding summer.
“I see us playing small quite a bit,” Self said. “And it’s really not small, Josh is 6-8, and we’re not going to play him as a forward. We’re still going to play him as a guard. But I think we’d be a hard team to guard if you can spread the floor with those four guards out there.”
Sophomore Carlton Bragg will start at power forward in a more traditional lineup. If Bragg can improve his defensive play and show some consistency, he could be a major contributor. With the departure of Ellis, it’s time for Bragg to show what he can do. Self thinks Bragg could be the key to a great season.
Fifth-year senior Landen Lucas is 6-10 and will provide the size, rebounding and defensive production at center. Lucas came on strong at the end of last season. The Jayhawks were 18-2 when he started. Self would like to see more scoring from Lucas. The Jayhawks will also be grooming 7-foot freshman Udoka Azubuike, who has a tremendous upside but needs time to develop.
The pieces are all there for Self. As the coach said, it remains to be seen how they fit together.
If the long term result is good, expect a lot of talk about 13 – as in consecutive championships – and possibly a 40-0 record.
“That’s our goal,” Jackson said. “We know it’s going to be really hard and kind of unlikely, but that’s what we’re shooting for.”