Jayhawks eye 14th straight Big 12 title, more March glory
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Bill Self was first introduced to what he calls “Kansas math” when he inherited a program that had lost stars Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich to the NBA and was still expected to win the Big 12 title.
Anywhere else, that would have been reason for a rebuild.
But there is no such thing as rebuilding on Naismith Drive, not when Self would lose all five starters later in his career, or the bulk of his 2008 national title team. And that rings true again this season, when the Jayhawks are expected to win their 14th straight conference title despite losing national player of the year Frank Mason III to graduation and No. 4 overall draft pick Josh Jackson to the NBA.
“When we took the job here, Kansas math amazed me, because you lose Collison and you lose Hinrich but we’re supposed to win it all the next year because that’s the mindset,” Self said. “But I also think that’s a positive, too, because the mindset with these players is that, ‘We’re going to miss those guys but somebody is going to step up and do it.'”
There are plenty of guys capable of stepping right up.
Start with Devonte Graham, who averaged more than 13 points last season while taking a backseat role to Mason in the backcourt. Throw in Lagerald Vick, another guard capable of scoring in bunches, and fellow guard Svi Mykhailiuk, who eschewed NBA overtures for one more season with the Jayhawks.
Seven-foot, 280-pound center Udoka Azubuike is back after an injury sidelined him much of last season.
Then there are the newcomers: Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman is eligible after redshirting, Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe will become eligible in December, and freshman guard Marcus Garrett and five-star prospect Billy Preston give the roster versatility and youthful exuberance.
All the ingredients to make another championship run.
“Everybody’s just got to stay healthy,” said Graham, an All-America candidate. “Keep doing what we’ve been doing, and put ourselves in a good situation in March. Working hard, starting now.”
As the Jayhawks being pursuit of their sixth national title, here are some of the key story lines:
Despite the conference supremacy, the Jayhawks have struggled the past five years in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve been bounced the opening weekend twice, lost in the Sweet 16 and were knocked out of the regional finals each of the past two seasons.
“Getting over that hump,” Graham said. “Been to two Elite Eights and lost — that’s definitely something on my bucket list that I want to do.”
They won’t see the floor this season, but the Jayhawks will still benefit from a trio of transfers in Dedric and K.J. Lawson from Memphis and Charlie Moore from Cal. The trio has to sit out under NCAA rules, just like Newman did last season, but are able to work out against Kansas in practice. In other words, good luck finding a better scout squad anywhere in the country.
The Jayhawks always have one of the nation’s toughest schedules, and this year is no exception. They open with Kentucky in the Champions Classic in Chicago, play Syracuse in Miami and have non-conference games against Washington, Arizona State, Nebraska, Stanford and Texas A&M. Throw in the double-round robin of the Big 12 and the Jayhawks will have a brutal road to March.
NBA CAN WAIT
Graham briefly considered turning pro before telling Self that he’d return to Lawrence, while Mykhailiuk dipped his toes in the pro waters. Some even thought that Newman would skip playing for Kansas and turn pro, though he insists that was never his plan. Regardless, the Jayhawks could have been a whole lot different this season if they made up their minds in a different direction.
Once considered a top-10 recruit, Newman is looking for a career reboot after averaging 11.3 points during his lone season at Mississippi State. He led the Jayhawks in scoring at 18.5 points per game during a trip to Italy in early August, and his experience should allow him to slide right into Mason’s spot on the perimeter to give Kansas one of the nation’s best backcourts.
“Motivation is the right word,” Newman said, “because you don’t want to be that set of guards people say, ‘This is the first set that Bill Self had that wasn’t tough.’ He’s known for having tough guards.”