With the 2017-2018 season upon us, I am going to analyze some of the key strengths and weaknesses I think will define the Jayhawks campaign to get over that Elite Eight hump (that Oregon lost still tastes real bitter) and finally bring back a National Championship to Lawrence.
In true blue blood form, Kansas looks to reload with incoming freshman Marcus Garrett and Billy Preston. Malik Newman, once a one-and-done prospect, looks to revitalize his draft stock and make an impact after being on the shelf as transfer student all of last season. If Malik can reach his potential that ranked him in the top ten of the stout 2015 recruiting class, Newman will be a true asset for the Jayhawks in March.
Marcus Garrett, ranking 15th for point guards in his recruiting class, surely will not fill the shoes of KU legend Frank Mason. However, with stud senior Devonte’ Graham looking to match Mason’s breakout 2016-2017 campaign, Garrett will be in good hands in Kansas’ backcourt. Billy Preston, who announced his decision with a creative video dubbed The Commitment, looks like a man amongst boys and Kansas fans should be excited about his ability to contribute immediately as a freshman even as he will need to acclimate to the college game. Look for the freshmen to be tested early in the Champion’s Classic against Kentucky.
As much as Graham will be shouldered with the burden of filling Mason’s production, he also inherits the role of team leader. While Graham struggled mightily in last season’s Elite Eight, he is poised to be one of the nation’s top players. His leadership style will surely differ from Mason’s (he actually smiles on the court), but Graham is the type of four-year contributor that inspires confidence.
Kansas fans have had the privilege of watching Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk blossom from a 17-year-old kid into a true NBA-caliber talent. Svi’s development in Self’s system makes him a great resource for incoming players.
Beyond the Arc
One of the most exciting parts of the Showdown for Relief was watching Graham’s confidence from three-point land. Graham is not the only legitimate threat from deep. Look for Lagerald Vick to improve in this area as well as Newman and Svi to develop a rhythm during the season. When the Jayhawks are firing from three, they can easily separate from opponents. Getting hot from behind the arch becomes critical in the spring.
Self has gone to the transfer coffers, leaving the current roster lacking in depth. Self is known for his tough practices but may need to dial it down if he wants to avoid the fatigue we saw on the court late in the season last year. A limited rotation is likely to leave the Jayhawks in foul trouble frequently and will require Bill to make some tough personnel decisions in early game situations. Look for Mitch Lightfoot to receive the time he deserved last season and to continue to develop without having to fight for time with the departed Bragg and Coleby. Consistent and reliable play from Garrett and Preston will be more critical than ever with Self working with a deeper bench.
While I am including toughness as a potential weakness for the Jayhawks, the solution is what has me the most excited about the upcoming season. Udoka Azubuike’s freshman year was cut short by injury. His ferocious play in Italy and the Showdown for Relief only further solidifies the difference he could have made against Oregon’s big men on the boards. Still, it will be hard to replace the toughness and consistency of Frank Mason and Landen Lucas. Billy Preston will have to elevate his game quickly and compete with grit and intensity night in and night out to fill the void. Mitch Lightfoot will have to further his flashes of defensive success and take Lucas’ approach of production without receiving all the glory.
Personally I have always felt one of Self’s biggest coaching weaknesses has been getting the right rotations in place. With a limited bench as already addressed, Self will need to find the right pairings sooner in the season than in years past. Finding the optimal balance of minutes with the correct men on the floor will be key to keeping players fresh for the long haul.