There are few constants in college basketball, but Kansas being a factor in March is one of them. The Jayhawks have won the Big 12 each of the last 12 seasons and have not missed the NCAA tournament since 1989.
Expect neither of those trends to change in 2016-17.
Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden are gone, but Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, and Landen Lucas all return to build the core of this team. Throw in Josh Jackson, the No. 2 recruit in the country, and the Jayhawks have the pieces for a national championship run.
If Kansas is going to live up to its potential, it is going to start with Graham. The guard was named all-Big 12 in the preseason and seems to have accepted the role of leader on the team. He’s added muscle, worked on his shot, and, according to the Kansas City Star, added a midrange floater. If it all translates into game play, there will be no shortage of ways Graham can beat you.
Graham’s backcourt mate, Mason, is Kansas’s leading returning scorer (12.9 points per game, 4.6 assists per game) and joined Graham on the Big 12 preseason First Team. Mason played the most minutes of anyone on the team last year and started to slow down toward the end, but was still a reliable shooter and steady with the ball.
It doesn’t stop there in the backcourt for Kansas. Jackson, a wing who could play the 2 or 3, is good enough to be a star right away. Self made it no secret that he only expects Jackson to be in Lawrence for one season. Self has compared Jackson to former Jayhawk and No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins because he is a do-everything guard with the ability to take over a game. In a pinch, Jackson is even capable of running the point.
Because of how loaded the Jayhawks are in the backcourt, junior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will come off the bench, though on many teams he would probably be transitioning into the starting lineup. Mykhailiuk played just 12 minutes per game last year, shooting over 40 percent from three. In the Jayhawks’ first-round victory over Austin Peay in March, he exploded for a breakout 23-point performance. His production was uneven last season, as he scored in double figures seven times but failed to score at all in nine other contests.
Kansas’s loaded backcourt will no doubt be the strength of the team, but that doesn’t make the frontcourt a weakness. Carlton Bragg had a turbulent freshman year, but came to Kansas loaded with promise. He has added nearly 30 pounds since an at-times-frustrating freshman year. Though he is bigger and presumably better, there’s a lot for him to clean up if he is going to be an influential player in the Big 12.
Mainly, Bragg needs to foul less and rebound more. But as a true stretch-four and with no one in the rotation stopping him from getting serious minutes, he has a chance to break out in 2016-17. Expect him to start at the four alongside Lucas.
Lucas arrived on campus four years ago as an afterthought on the recruiting trail, but over his first three seasons has improved in every important statistical category each year. He is a solid defender and rebounder, and if he can become more of a scorer, he has a chance to be a major difference-maker in the Big 12.
We will find out quickly how well these pieces fit together for Kansas. After a pair of exhibition games, the Jayhawks open the regular season against No. 11 Indiana in the Armed Forces Classic, then play No. 1 Duke in their second game in the annual Champions Classic.
G Frank Mason III (senior)
G Devonte’ Graham (junior)
G Josh Jackson (freshman)
F Carlton Bragg (sophomore)
C Landen Lucas (senior)
Key Reserves: G Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (junior), C Udoka Azubuike (freshman), F Mitch Lightfoot (freshman), F Dwight Coleby (junior), G Lagerald Vick (sophomore)
How Kansas can succeed: The backcourt gives the Jayhawks the freedom and versatility they need to win
So many of the nation’s top teams will be powered by their backcourts and Kansas is no different. Mason, Graham, and Jackson give Kansas a blend of youth and experience that will make them must-see TV in the Big 12.
That trio is not only supremely talented, but the individual skill sets complement each other well. Graham is the best shooter on the team and will benefit from playing alongside two excellent ball handlers. Mason, who was leaned on too much at times last year, will be able to both shoot and create.
Then there’s Jackson, who doesn’t have much of a jumper, but can get to the basket and score at will, while being a reliable on-ball defender. The Jayhawks seem to have every base covered with the starting five, leaving Mykhailiuk and the sophomore Vick to provide depth and quality minutes.
Mykhailiuk figures to be the sixth man, and spent his summer gaining valuable experience on the Ukrainian national team in the FIBA U20 European Championships. Then there’s Vick, who played sparingly last year, but seemed to break out in the team’s summer scrimmage. He’s still somewhat of an unknown quantity, but will be worth a look when the situation allows.
How the Jayhawks can go home early: Jackson underperforms and others are not ready to adapt to their new roles
Anyone in their right mind would pick Kansas near the top of the preseason rankings, but there’s no denying that at least part of the reason is based on conjecture.
The assumption is that Bragg is ready to shine and he should be in the starting lineup. He also played just nine minutes per game last year and didn’t score in the Jayhawks’ final two NCAA tournament games.
Jackson has the reputation of being one of the most competitive players in the country, who shows no mercy on either end of the court. He will need to adjust to playing alongside somebody else who might be the go-to scorer (Graham) or might take more control in running the offense (Mason).
Beyond that, one has to assume that the Kansas bench beyond Mykhailiuk is ready to contribute. No other returning sub played in more than 19 games last year. Azubuike needs to be ready to step in if Lucas goes down. Meanwhile Coleby is recovering from an ACL tear and Lightfoot is not projected to be ready for prime time.
A lot would have to go wrong for Kansas to not be a Final Four-caliber team this season and there’s no reason to expect that. Still, Self and his staff will probably feel much better once the team has a few games under its belt and he gets a better feel for his rotations and his players’ roles.