Kansas Jayhawks Preview
Since winning the national title in 2008, the Kansas Jayhawks have earned four No. 1 seeds and three No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. They have just one Final Four berth to show for it. In 2016-17, Jayhawks faithful say, the painful string of postseason collapses will come to a halt. (Play CBB Now)
As always, there are plenty of reasons for excitement in Lawrence. The backcourt of Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham will be one of the nation’s best; freshman wing Josh Jackson is regarded as a top-five pick in next summer’s NBA Draft; and small forward Carlton Bragg is poised for a breakout season. Whether the Jayhawks will be able to muster the toughness (perhaps more mental than physical) that disappeared when they fell to Villanova as the No. 1 overall seed last spring. Or to Wichita State the year before that. Or to Stanford and Michigan before that. Self is betting they can.
For the third straight year, there is reason for concern in the paint. The problem comes especially on the defensive end, where the Jayhawks lack the high-level rim protector that was once a staple with players such as Cole Aldrich, Jeff Withey and Joel Embiid. A 6’10” center, Landen Lucas has shown flashes of toughness in the past but will need to contribute much more than the 5.8 points and 6.8 rebounds he averaged as a junior last season. An even bigger key will be sophomore Carlton Bragg, a McDonald’s All-American who averaged just 8.9 minutes in 2015-16. With leading scorer Perry Ellis (16.9 ppg) having graduated, Bragg must quickly morph from a seldom-used reserve into a focal point for Kansas on both ends of the floor.
After Lucas and Bragg, things get iffy for Kansas in the post. Ole Miss transfer Dwight Coleby is eligible after sitting out the 2015-16 season, but he’s recovering from ACL surgery. Self is excited about the potential of freshman Mitch Lightfoot, but he may be a year away from making a significant impact. Instead, the onus may fall on another freshman, Udoka Azubuike, to log considerable minutes off the bench. At 7’0″ and 280 pounds, Azubuike is strong and physical enough to hold his own with upperclassmen.
They may not be future NBA Lottery picks, but Mason and Graham are still regarded as two of the top college guards in America. Both averaged more than 32 minutes per game last season, with point guard Mason ranking third on the team in scoring (12.9 ppg) and first in assists (4.6 apg). Graham averaged 11.3 points in 2015-16 while connecting on 44.1 percent of his 3-pointers. He also developed a reputation for coming up big in the clutch, most notably in a huge win at Oklahoma, when he scored 27 points and pestered Buddy Hield into a 5-of-15 performance from the floor.
Still, as battled-tested as Mason and Graham may be, the best player on the court for Kansas this season will undoubtedly be Jackson, who spurned Arizona and Michigan State for the Kansas Jayhawks last spring. A 6’8″ wing, Jackson is known for his all-around game, his fire and his sincere passion for winning. It’s something that is often absent from one-and-done players. Jackson’s outside shot needs work, but he’s excellent at getting into the lane and creating for others. And he relishes rebounding and playing a menacing style of defense. Junior Svi Mykhailiuk also will play a big role for Kansas. The 6’8″ combo guard was hailed as a surefire NBA Lottery pick when he arrived at Kansas in 2014 but has yet to live up to expectations.
Along with being the best player on Kansas’ roster, Josh Jackson might be the best player in the Big 12, and some would say in the nation. Expectations are certainly very high for the freshman. Udoka Azubuike was impressive during summer drills and should make a bigger impact as a freshman than initially expected. Kansas coaches felt like they got a steal when Mitch Lightfoot committed early, though not much will be expected from the forward as a freshman.
The Kansas Jayhawks have won 12 straight Big 12 titles. It’s the most by a major conference team since UCLA claimed 13 in a row during the days of John Wooden. With Big 12 powers such as Iowa State, West Virginia, Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas expected to take a step back, Kansas is the overwhelming favorite to take the crown once again. Still, as Self likes to say, fans in Lawrence judge teams by how they fare in March. With the backcourt of Mason and Graham and an elite talent in Jackson, the personnel is there to get Kansas over its postseason hump.