College Hoops Contender Series: Does Kansas have the talent to overcome awkward roster construction?
Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.
Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers and talked about six different Final Four contenders - Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami - that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.
There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.
This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.
What makes them good enough to win a national title?
But why won’t they win a national title?
We took a look at Kentucky yesterday. Now let’s break down Kansas and what makes them a title contender.
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WHY THEY WILL WIN
They’re Kansas, and Kansas does not lose Big 12 races.
I don’t expect that that will change this year, and there are four reasons why:
- Phog Allen Fieldhouse: Kansas does not lose there. It just doesn’t happen, which means that you can pencil in nine Big 12 wins for them off the bat. Then, consider that ...
- ... the rest of the Big 12 is down: Outside of West Virginia, is there anyone in the league that should scare Kansas? Baylor could be a top 25 team, but losing Jonathan Motley will keep them out of the Big 12 title discussion. Texas should be relevant again, but even with the addition of Mo Bamba and the return of Andrew Jones, I think they’re more ‘top 25 good’ than ‘challenge Kansas’ good. Oklahoma is still rebuilding. Texas Tech and TCU look like they could be NCAA tournament teams, but not much more. Iowa State lost what feels like everyone. Oklahoma State and Kansas State are ... whatever.
- And Bill Self is still Bill Self: There’s a reason that he is already a Hall of Famer despite being just 54 years old. He’s one of the best in this business, and if the 13 straight regular season titles didn’t convince you yet, I’m not sure that anything will. At this point there is no reason to assume anything other than Self trotting out a team that is going to be in and around the top ten, in the mix for a No. 1 seed and, as such, a Final Four and title contender. It’s just what Kansas does.
- Most importantly, Kansas is still super-talented: It starts with Devonte’ Graham, who I think has a real shot at being an all-american this season. He’ll be playing his more natural point guard position, and he may actually be a better pure point guard than National Player of the Year Frank Mason was last season. Malik Newman, a former top ten recruit that redshirted last season, will be joining Graham in the back court. Svi Mykhailiuk is back, as is LaGerald Vick, while another transfer -- Sam Cunliffe -- will be eligible come December. Throw in Udoka Azubuike and Billy Preston up front, and the Jayhawks have a nice blend of talent, youth and experience.
All that said, I don’t think this will be the best Kansas team we’ve seen in recent years.
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WHY THEY WON’T WIN
Everything about this Kansas team just feels kind of ... weird.
Let’s start with the transfers. They have five of them on the roster this year. Three will be redshirting this season. One, Sam Cunliffe, won’t be eligible until December after transferring out of Arizona State just one semester into his Sun Devil career. Another, Malik Newman, will be eligible to play this season after redshirting last year, teaming up in the back court with Devonte’ Graham, who is in a weird position in his own right.
Graham was a point guard in high school. He was a point guard when he signed with Appalachian State and he was a point guard when he was forced to go to prep school for a year because the Mountaineers wouldn’t let him out of his Letter Of Intent. He was also a point guard when he arrived at Kansas, and he proceeded to spend the next three years playing off the ball as point guard Frank Mason went from being the other guy in a recruiting class that included Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the National Player of the Year as a senior.
For the first time in his college career, Graham will be taking over the primary point guard duties in a back court that includes a player in Newman that wants the ball in his hands and likes to shoot as much as anyone in college hoops.
How that back court pairing gels will likely end up being the most influential part of the Jayhawk season.
But there’s more.
Let’s talk small-ball for a second.
Bill Self, for years, was a coach that wanted to do nothing more than he wanted to play two bigs. Sometimes, those bigs were the Perry Ellis-type, face-up fours whose ability to score in the mid-range was elite. Sometimes, like when he made it to the national title game in 2012, he had Thomas Robinson lining up next to Jeff Withey.
However it played out, the constant was two big men ... until last season, when Josh Jackson showed up and suddenly Self had the ideal small-ball lineup: Two point guards, two tough and athletic wings that could make threes and a big body in the post that can block shots and get rebounds. With Jackson now gone, Kansas and Self now have something of a problem on their hands. As it stands, there are just nine eligible scholarship players on the Jayhawks roster. Only three of them can be considered big men -- Udoka Azubuike, Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot.
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In an ideal world, one where Self has a back court that includes a pair of ball-handlers that will be in his starting lineup and a shortage of big bodies, the Jayhawks would once again play small-ball.
Jackson was the glue that held that lineup together. He was the prototype college four. He was tough as nails defensively, he could rebound like a power forward and he defended the rim when needed. He was also a matchup nightmare on the offensive end, a natural wing and skilled playmaker with three-point range and the ability to grab a rebound and immediately spark transition.
Kansas does not have that guy anymore. LaGerald Vick is an excellent spot-up three-point shooter and the kind of athlete that will be a plus-wing defender, but he’s all of 6-foot-4 and he’s nowhere near the playmaker that Jackson was. Cunliffe, when he finally gets eligible, is a little bit bigger than Vick but not all that different of a player. Svi Mykhailiuk is a skilled player on the offensive end of the floor that has, shall we say, question marks defensively.
In theory, the answer to this problem would be for the Jayhawks to play Azubuike, a former five-star recruit, and Preston, a five-star prospect in the Class of 2017, together. Frankly, they actually fit fairly well together. The problem is that this would mean that the only front court depth that Self would have is Lightfoot, who looked out of his element in the 102 minutes he played as a freshman.
There isn’t an easy answer to this issue.
It’s one of the pitfalls of taking three sit-out transfers the same year.
Which is why this Kansas team has such a weird feel to it.
Overall, Kansas is going to be fine.
Outside of West Virginia, the rest of the Big 12 is not all that intimidating. The Jayhawks should win their 14th straight Big 12 title.
But there is valid reason to be concerned about what this team is going to be able to accomplish against the best teams in the country. Last year, they were the team that created the mismatches, that forced teams to play their way or take the loss.
I just don’t see how that happens this season. I’m not sure Kansas going small would force the best teams to match them because I don’t think it’s all that worrisome having a college four guard the likes of Vick, Cunliffe or Svi. I also don’t think their two-big lineup will be all that effective unless Preston has a bigger impact -- i.e. all-Big 12ish -- than I expect and Lightfoot proves to be a better bench presence than I realized.
The combination of Bill Self, the amount of talent on the roster and Phog Allen Fieldhouse will keep the Jayhawks in and around the top five throughout the year.
But I think they will be more matchup-dependent in the NCAA tournament than you would think a potential No. 1 seed would be.