It’s fall in Lawrence, which means the football team is breaking records for futility while fans have already turned the page to Kansas’ premier sport: basketball. The pieces are in place for Bill Self’s squad to have a potentially dominant season. The fans are eager, and the players are hungry. But exactly how good can we expect Kansas to be?
The Jayhawks men’s basketball team was given its highest preseason ranking in six years. It returns the nucleus from a roster that won an 11th straight Big 12 conference crown last year, and three elite recruits join the core to complete a team that figures to contend for the National Championship.
Personally, I think that this is the best team Kansas has put on the floor since 2010-2011. That team went 35-3. I legitimately think that this team has a chance to be that good. Let’s go position-by-position and preview what the upcoming year could hold for Jayhawks basketball:
Point guard: Frank Mason emerged as a star last season, but the real name that people around college basketball should familiarize themselves with is Devonte Graham. Graham, a sophomore from Raleigh, battled injury and inexperience in his freshman year but still managed to log an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 2:1. Despite being an underclassman, Graham figures to start the year at the de-facto point guard position for the Jayhawks. He’s Kansas’ best passing point guard since Aaron Miles, and I’m dead serious with that claim. He can also shoot the ball, netting 43% of his three-pointers last season.
Graham’s growth as a regular starter will allow Mason to do what he does best more: shoot the ball. Like Graham, Mason shot north of 40% from three last season, but he provided remarkable consistency, scoring double-digit points in 21 straight games. Despite being just 5-foot-11, he’s a terrific rebounder (nearly 4.0 per game), and he’s the best free throw shooter among the Kansas starting five.
In years past, the point guard position has been the biggest question mark for the Jayhawks. Heading into this year, it might be their strongest facet of the game.
Graham: 24.7 minutes, 8.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists : 1.9 turnovers
Mason: 30.2 minutes, 13.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists : 2.7 turnovers
Shooting guard: Wayne Selden enters his third year in Lawrence, still looking for the breakout that fans have anticipated for the past two seasons. His sophomore stats were nearly identical to his averages as a freshman, but a strong showing in the World University Games this summer hints at a possible emergence into a star in 2015-16.
Selden will improve, but Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is the guy that I’m most intrigued to see. “Svi” looked nasty in the most recent exhibition game. It’s no secret that he can shoot the three, but he struggled last year, making just 29% of his long-range shots. This year, he’s added 15 pounds of muscle and has shortened his shot, and if the exhibition games are any indication, he’s about to have a big year. And when his shot is off, Self has the aid of another sharpshooter, junior Brannen Greene, easily the team’s best shooter from last year (40% from three, 92% from the free throw line) to turn to. If this group can provide solid defense when they’re on the court, it won’t have many problems at all.
Selden: 29.4 minutes, 11.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 37% three-point percentage
Mykhailiuk: 16.3 minutes, 8.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 41% three-point percentage
Greene: 14.2 minutes, 6.2 points, 2.0 rebounds, 40% three-point percentage
Senior Perry Ellis returns to Kansas as the heart and soul of the team, and he’ll provide terrific numbers and contend for a spot on the All-America teams. But other than that, with freshman center Cheick Diallo still awaiting NCAA clearance, will this be the spot that could give Kansas a hiccup?
Junior Landen Lucas is KU’s best defensive center, while senior Hunter Mickelson is probably the best on offense. Senior Jamari Traylor, the team’s so-called “energy bunny,” can do a little bit of everything. How will Self distribute minutes among these three players? I’d definitely prefer a committee depending on who’s playing well at the time, but I want to see Mickelson play the most. He was KU’s best big man in Korea, and Diallo will be cleared eventually, but until he does, I think he’s the Jayhawks’ best option at the center position. Oh, and don’t forget about the other freshman big man on campus, Carlton Bragg Jr. He’s raw, but he’s ridiculously athletic. The first few games may be a bit rough, but when he puts it together, he really could be an x-factor for the team in March.
Ellis: 31.5 minutes, 16.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.2 blocks
Diallo: 21.6 minutes, 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.3 blocks
Traylor: 16.4 minutes, 5.9 points, 4.2 rebounds
Mickelson: 11.4 minutes, 7.5 points, 4.3 rebounds
Lucas: 11.0 minutes, 4.5 points, 4.1 rebounds
Season Prediction: This is Bill Self’s deepest roster in five years, which will be pivotal as the Jayhawks prepare to engage in another brutal Big 12 race. The league is as stacked from top to bottom as it has ever been, but in the end, even if the Jayhawks weren’t the most talented team in the conference, the homecourt advantage of Allen Fieldhouse will push the team over the top. Give me Kansas to win a 12th straight Big 12 title, outright, at 15-3. Preceding that is a tough-but-better-than-last-year non-conference schedule. I’ll say Kansas goes 12-1 in non-conference play to enter the Big 12 tournament at 27-4.
I’m convinced that this team is the real deal. I think they’ll be a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. I think they’re one of the favorites for the National Championship. This is Kansas’ best team since 2010-2011, and I think they show it with an outright conference crown and a deep NCAA tournament run.