Tuesday September 16th, 2014

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. – As I was leaning against a wall and talking to Kansas coach Bill Self in July at the Nike EYBL Peach Jam, we started discussing the team he will be putting on the floor next season. “You know,” I told him, “you didn’t really lose much from last year.”

Self looked at me sideways, flashed that hillbilly grin of his and quipped, “You mean besides two of the top three picks in the draft?”

It was a fair point, but it doesn’t mean I was wrong. Yes, Andrew Wiggins (who was selected No. 1 overall by the Cavaliers before he was traded to the Timberwolves) and Joel Embiid (No. 3 to the Sixers) have moved on, as have seniors Naadir Tharpe, a 5-foot-11 point guard, and Tarik Black, a 6-foot-9 forward. But KU will still be one of the deepest and most talented teams in the country next season because … well, because it’s Kansas, and it’s a new season, and Bill Self is still the coach. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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At this point, why should we expect anything different? Self routinely loses top draft picks each spring, yet his teams have now captured 10 consecutive Big 12 regular season championships. Given the state of college basketball these days, where the rate of roster turnover is at an all-time high, that has to be considered one of the most remarkable streaks in all of sports. It should continue in 2014-15. Self still has a solid core of returning veterans, and they will be joined by what might be the best freshman class he has ever recruited.

And yet, when it comes to discussing the best recruiters in the game, it seems the list is only allowed to include two people – Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari, with the occasional Sean Miller tossed in. But Self is just as successful as those powerhouse procurers. His classes might not always have the same one-and-done sizzle (heading into last season very few basketball people believed Embiid would be gone after his freshman year), but Self almost never has an “off” year on the trail. And that means no “down” years during the season.

Self’s recruiting success results from more than just his charm. It’s also his strategy. He generally targets several of the top players at each position he is looking to fill. If the players dither too long, they know they might lose their shot at coming to KU. On the few occasions where Self does lose a player to another school, he has a backup ready to step in.

So when 6-foot-11 Chicago native Jahlil Okafor, who is widely regarded to be the top player in the Class of 2014, opted for Duke, that cleared the way for 6-foot-8 forward Cliff Alexander, whom Rivals.com ranked No. 4 nationally, to pick Kansas. Self signed two other elite prospects in 6-foot-7 swingman Kelly Oubre (ranked No. 6 by Rivals) and 6-foot-2 point guard Devonte’ Graham (No. 36).

As if that weren’t enough, Self also added another intriguing player last spring without even having seen the kid play in person. His name is Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and he hails from the Ukraine. (His last name is pronounced “Meh-KAI-luke,” but I imagine he’ll most often be referred to as “the Ukrainian kid.”) Mykhailuk is a versatile, 6-foot-8 swingman who averaged 25 points and eight rebounds at the under-16 European championships in 2013.

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He made waves in America with a standout performance at the Nike Hoop Summit in Oregon last April, and this month he competed as a reserve for Ukraine at the FIBA World Cup in Spain. (He played 11 minutes in Ukraine’s 95-71 loss to the U.S.) Once Ukraine was knocked out of that tournament, Mykhailuk could begin his tenure in Lawrence, Kansas, He arrived on campus last week.

Not only is Mykhailuk an intriguing blend of size and skill – he’s an excellent pure shooter, but his nifty handle gives him a crafty midrange game as well – but he just turned 17 in June and has already completed high school in his native country. That means he must play at least two seasons in college before being eligible for the NBA draft.

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It’s almost unfair for someone with Self’s track record to benefit from good luck in recruiting, but that was the case when Mykhailuk came to America to take his official visits last spring. To that point, the only other school Mykhailuk had been to was Virginia. He lit up when he discovered that Self had coached Sasha Kaun, the former Jayhawk center who now plays professionally in Moscow. Mykhailuk was supposed to take some more visits after leaving Kansas, but his high school unexpectedly summoned him home to finish up his final exams. He was unable to take any more visits. He committed to KU in May.

When I asked Self how good the kid was during our conversation at the Peach Jam, he replied, “At this point, you’ve seen him play live just as much as I have. I’ve only seen him play on tape.”

“Have you ever signed a player that you never saw play?” I asked.

Self thought for a moment and replied, “Probably not. Maybe back when I was at Oral Roberts.”

Still, there was no doubting that he had landed an excellent prospect.

“All the NBA people told me about him,” Self said. “I talked to a lot of people who watched him play in Europe. He’s good. He’s real good. I don’t know how strong he is, but he’s talented, no question.”

Aside from the freshmen, the Jayhawks will have last season’s second- and third-leading scorers (behind Wiggins) in the starting lineup: 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Wayne Selden, Jr. and 6-foot-8 junior forward Perry Ellis, who will be on a lot of preseason All-America lists given the way he also shined in college workouts at the top showcases this summer.

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The most unsettled position for the Jayhawks will be point guard, where Graham will compete with 5-foot-11 sophomore Frank Mason and 6-foot sophomore Connor Frankamp for playing time. Mykhailiuk should also be able to contribute some minutes as a backup point if necessary.

Besides the point guard situation, Self has one other area of concern heading into the season.

“This will probably be the smallest team we’ve had,” he said.

Actually, the more accurate word would be “shortest," because there is nothing "small" about the 240-pound Alexander. Oubre, meanwhile, had a dynamic summer, standing out among some of the top college players in the country at the Adidas Nations Camp in California last month. NBA scouts are already buzzing about him.

So yes, some of the names on the back of the jerseys will be different in Lawrence, Kansas, next season, but not much else is going to change. Assuming the Jayhawks stay healthy, they will likely win another Big 12 title, contend for the national championship, lose a bunch of players to the NBA draft and bring in another top-flight recruiting class. Lather, rinse, repeat. Whether it’s winter games or summer recruiting, Self is the cleanest cat in the gym.

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