Jayhawks head into season with national title aspirations
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) Kansas lost one of the leading scorers and rebounders in school history, a slashing guard capable of scoring in bunches, a one-and-done prospect with freakish talent and a dazzling 3-point shooter.
And there's a good chance they'll be even better this season.
Hard to believe after the Jayhawks went 33-5, won their 12th straight Big 12 regular-season title and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. But with the return of three starters and the addition of Josh Jackson, the nation's top overall recruit, the Jayhawks believe they have the chops to win their first national title since 2008.
''We're going to miss two key starters and of course some depth behind that, but I do think the pieces have potential to fit,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. ''If the pieces fit as well, then I think you may have a little bit more talented group that may give you a chance maybe to play better when it counts the most. But certainly it remains to be seen if the pieces can get there yet.''
Self acknowledged losing Perry Ellis to graduation creates a significant void, not only in scoring and rebounding but also leadership, and that Wayne Selden Jr. was often the best player on the floor. When you throw in Cheick Diallo, who left after one underwhelming season for the NBA, and Brannen Greene's decision to leave a year early, you have roster turnover that could cripple most programs.
The Jayhawks merely had to plug the holes and press on.
Jackson should move right into the starting lineup, a 6-foot-8 swingman who some believe could have more impact on the Jayhawks than Andrew Wiggins. Udoka Azubuike also arrived on campus with the kind of expectations that match the freshman center's 7-foot, 270-pound frame.
The Jayhawks will also add Ole Miss transfer Dwight Coleby to the mix. He tore his ACL last year but was already sitting out under NCAA transfer rules, and could provide some depth in the front court.
But the key to the Jayhawks' success will be the returnees: Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham will combine with Jackson in arguably the nation's best backcourt, Carlton Bragg is poised to become a scoring machine after an uneven freshman season and Landen Lucas provides experience in the post.
''Everyone just has to give themselves up and do exactly what coach wants,'' Mason said. ''He's been there and he knows what it takes. Doing that, we have a chance to be the best we can be.''
Here are the story lines that could define the Jayhawks' season:
Several analysts have already listed him No. 1 in next year's draft, but so far he has said all the right things. And he wants to win, even floating the idea of going 40-0. ''We know it's going to be really hard and kind of unlikely,'' he said, ''but that's what we're shooting for.''
Self loves his big men, but the majority of his talent is in the backcourt, so expect the Jayhawks to play four guards quite often. Mason, Graham and Jackson could be joined by Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick, who played sparingly a year ago but has taken big strides in the offseason.
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West Virginia lost Devin Williams, Iowa State lost Georges Niang and Oklahoma lost Buddy Hield and, well, just about everybody. So the Jayhawks are the heavy favorites to win the league for the 13th straight time, which would match the record streak of UCLA for a major conference.
Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman will have to sit out under NCAA transfer rules, but he should still prove valuable. Newman was one of the nation's top recruits out of high school and should help to make practices a bit more spirited.
The Jayhawks open with Indiana in Hawaii and play Duke four days later in New York, an unusual and brutal combination of travel and talented opponents. Stanford, UNLV and Nebraska ae also on the non-conference schedule. ''That's why you come to a school like this - to start off with Indiana and Duke,'' Lucas said. ''We're going to learn a lot in those first couple of weeks.''