Kansas will open its regular season slate on Friday, and it will do so with lofty expectations. The return of the Mason/Graham backcourt, plus the addition of Josh Jackson, figures to have the Jayhawks in the mix for a 13th straight conference title.
This edition of KU basketball has a lot to live up to, as its predecessors went 33-5, losing to the eventual national champion Villanova Wildcats in the Elite Eight. Let’s look at ways that this year’s team will be different than the 2015-16 Jayhawks.
The aforementioned duo of Frank Mason and Devonte Graham return, heading the KU backcourt with tons of experience. Last season was Graham’s first full season as a starter, a role in which he flourished, but it was not without growing pains. Mason enters the season as one of the most seasoned point guards in college basketball, playing in nearly 70% of Kansas’ minutes over the past three seasons. Another year together figures to bolster their already immense productivity, especially on the defensive end of the floor, where both guards were members of the All-Big 12 Defensive Team last season.
In the frontcourt, there was no bigger story last season than the maturation of Landen Lucas. The center position was a revolving door for Bill Self last season, shuffling between Lucas, Cheick Diallo, Hunter Mickelson, and Jamari Traylor. Lucas took the role and ran with it right around the beginning of conference play last season, and he proved to be one of Kansas’ most indispensable pieces. After a full season of success as a starter, Lucas should head into his senior season miles ahead of where he entered last year. His rim defending and ability to rebound on both ends of the floor will be essential to this team’s success.
The losses of Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis will surely be missed. Last season, when the team needed a bucket, it looked for either Selden or Ellis to create their own shot and convert. Interestingly enough, Kansas may have more firepower this year after losing those two. The addition of Josh Jackson, the maturation of Svi Mykhailiuk, and the emergence of Lagerald Vick bolster this roster’s athleticism immensely. All three guys have shown glimpses of speed, quickness, and jumping ability that will make them very difficult to defend in the open court. The floor vision of both Mason and Graham, coupled with these athletes on the wing, should provide Jayhawk fans with numerous highlight type of plays this season.
Carlton Bragg Jr. might be the best athlete on the team. The 6’9″ forward runs the floor quickly and gracefully, is very active on defense, and jumps out of the gym. The way Bragg stretches his game makes him a nightmare to defend, as he can knock down jumpers, get to the rim in a dribble, and wreck havoc on a high pick-and-roll. His progression from freshman to sophomore season may decide the fate of this Kansas team.
Three Point Shooting
Last season’s team was the best three-point shooting team Bill Self has ever coached at Kansas, shooting 41.3% from beyond the arc. Losing Brannen Greene, Perry Ellis, and Wayne Selden will hurt the makeup of this year’s team from deep, but Kansas has the pieces in place to remain an effective three-point shooting team. Devonte Graham shot 44% from three last year, second on the team to Greene’s 49%. Though Jackson doesn’t appear to be a high-percentage shooter from three at this point in his career, his playmaking ability will allow for open perimeter looks for players such as Graham, Mykhailiuk, and Vick to fill it up.
Frank Mason struggled to knock down threes for much of last season, but he still put up a 38% clip that figures to progress this season. Carlton Bragg’s ability to stretch the floor to beyond the arc last season was evident, shooting over 50%, albeit in a very small sample.
This year’s team does not figure to be as prolific from beyond the arc as last year’s was, but Kansas definitely has the perimeter talent to sustain a very respectable clip from beyond the arc.
In just one more day, all of this speculation can be put to rest, as we will finally have non-exhibition Kansas basketball to consume. The Jayhawks take on Indiana in what figures to be a fast paced, exciting game. Look for all three of the factors above to play a role in the opener, as a wide open game usually calls for three-point looks and fast break opportunities, with a little bit of veteran leadership to reign it all in and close a game.