N. Colorado-Kansas Preview
(AP) - Walk down the corridor and into Allen Fieldhouse, then gaze up to the rafters. Row upon row of championship banners stretch from one end to the other, with five large banners at one end for each of the national championships.
Expectations never really change at Kansas.
Some years, like this one, they are just augmented a bit.
The fourth-ranked Jayhawks have hung 11 consecutive Big 12 championship banners in those rafters, and the minimum expectation is to make it a dozen this season. But it will have been eight years since they last hung a national title banner, and that is where expectations are hovering these days going into Friday's night opener versus Northern Colorado at Allen Fieldhouse.
''I have a goal to go to the Final Four,'' said senior forward Perry Ellis, who has only gotten to the regional semifinals once in his three seasons. ''We have been in the system and we know what the coaches are expecting. We feel really confident and I can see it.''
The Jayhawks may have lost another first-round pick last season in Kelly Oubre Jr., but they more than reloaded. Five-star freshmen Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg promise to give them some interior size that they didn't have last season, while springy shooting guard Lagerald Vick joins what is arguably one of the nation's top backcourts.
But unlike most years at blue-blood programs, whether the Jayhawks (27-9) return to the Final Four for the first time since 2012 will not be defined by the play of their talented freshmen.
It will be the result of their returning core.
Few national championship contenders have as much experience as Kansas, led by Ellis, who averaged 13.8 points last season and can finish his career as one of the school's career scoring leaders. He could have declared for the NBA last season, but decided that he wanted to return for one more shot at glory.
Another pro prospect, Wayne Selden Jr., decided to stay, too. He'll be joined by a pair of veteran point guards in Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham, sophomore sharpshooter Svi Mykhailiuk and lanky forward Brannen Greene in the backcourt.
''We've got 12 pretty good guys, and all 12 are not going to play. Ten may not play,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. ''We have some nice pieces, but the thing I like about it as much as anything is if somebody is not doing what they can to help our team win, it's not going to be that difficult to try to give somebody else an opportunity to do that.''
Diallo was cleared to practice Tuesday by the NCAA but has yet to be cleared for this game as they continue to review his high school transcripts. His guardian has retained legal counsel, and a lawsuit against the governing body on his behalf may follow, which Self noted would be "going a big step further."
Northern Colorado (15-15) returns two starters to a team picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Sky Conference, and coach B.J. Hill will be integrating eight newcomers.
Junior guard Cameron Michael, second on the Bears last season at 12.9 points per game and the team's top 3-pointer shooter at 39.3 percent, will be asked to shoulder much of the offensive load. Jordan Wilson (8.8 ppg) and Anthony Johnson (3.5 ppg) join Michael in the backcourt, and 6-foot-10 sophomore center Jeremy Verhagen has the unenviable task of trying to contain Kansas' talented frontcourt.
Hill realizes the Bears will be a work in progress early in the season.
"I need to be patient with them because that's the hardest thing to do is to get them to be cohesive on the offensive end," he said.
Kansas has a loaded non-conference schedule that includes a game versus No. 13 Michigan State in Chicago next week as part of the Champions Classic and is also the top seed for the Maui Invitational at the end of the month. The Jayhawks will also face Final Four squad Kentucky and fellow 2015 NCAA Tournament participants Harvard and San Diego State.
''We've tried to play a nationally competitive schedule,'' Self said. ''Even the games you look at as guaranteed games or `buy games,' it's against teams that are the best teams in their respective leagues. So it's been really good for us.''