The defining feature of Kansas’s run of dominance under head coach Bill Self is consistency. The Jayhawks win, and they win a lot. At least 25 victories, a conference banner and a top-two NCAA tournament seed is their baseline for a given season. Other putative powers in high-major conferences spend years molding the right roster, and hoping to get just enough breaks, to deliver a campaign like that. The annual process of casting about for a legitimate challenger to Kansas in the Big 12 reeks of desperation. There is no use in trying to manufacture drama in the lead up to league play. A better approach is to install the Jayhawks as the presumptive champs and spend more time sorting out which team has the best shot at claiming the silver medal.
Only in retrospect will Kansas’s longstanding reign get the recognition it deserves, but this off-season seems an apt time to highlight one part of the Jayhawks’ recipe for success: Self’s adaptability. Unlike, say, Kentucky, which reliably harvests a group of the nation’s top prospects every year before ferrying them to the lottery, Kansas does not roll out the same type of team over and over. During his 14 seasons in charge, Self has leaned on hyper-athletic one-and-done wings, wily veteran guards and 45-year-old centers to anchor his rotations. At the same time, rather than hewing to rigid stylistic tenets, Self has deployed those pieces in different configurations, using everything from point-guard twosomes to small-ball units to dual-big looks to accentuate his players’ strengths. “There hasn’t been an exact science for us,” Self said in an interview.
His next big adjustment will have less to do with whiteboard wizardry than lineup composition. The Jayhawks are set to have six transfers on their roster in 2017–18, nearly half of their allotted scholarships (13) and two more than any other squad during Self’s tenure. The group is as remarkable for its size as it is for its diversity. It draws from each coast and the south; the Power 5, a mid-major alliance and a low-major conference; and both poles of the recruiting rankings. And the motives for its members’ decisions to decamp to Lawrence (coaching changes, bad fits, the attraction of the national spotlight and stronger opponents) are hardly uniform. Kansas won’t just be Transfer U. It will be a veritable melting pot of the Division I hoops populace.
Jack Whitman: A 6’9’’ forward who elected to try his hand at a higher level of competition after spending three seasons with William & Mary in the Colonial Athletic Association. Whitman is a productive inside scorer and foul-drawer but he shouldn’t be counted on to space the floor with his jump shot; he’s yet to attempt a three-pointer during his college career. Whitman will be eligible immediately after graduating earlier this month. “We feel like [Whitman] will definitely be a rotational guy for us,” Self said.
Malik Newman: A former top-10 recruit who picked Mississippi State over Kansas in the spring of 2015 before enduring one rocky season with the Bulldogs. The 6’3’’ guard turned the ball over on 17.5% of his possessions and ranked seventh on his team in Player Efficiency Rating and eighth in Effective Field Goal Percentage. Though Newman excels at creating shots off the dribble, he could drag down Kansas’s offense if his scoring efficiency doesn’t improve. “We think [Newman] can be a 15-point-plus-a-game scorer for us this year,” Self said.
Sam Cunliffe: A 6’6’’ freshman who made 40.5% of his threes over 10 games with Arizona State last season. He’ll give the Jayhawks a bouncy wing shooter to put alongside Newman, sophomore LaGerald Vick and junior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (if he comes back to school). “We feel like we’re getting a guy that knows our system somewhat and is a great athlete and [has] great potential to be a multiple-year starter here,” Self said of Cunliffe, who won’t be eligible until after the fall semester.
Charlie Moore: A Chicago native who was thrust into a starting spot as a true freshman at Cal last season before leaving Berkeley and choosing Kansas over Illinois. Like 2017 Wooden Award winner Frank Mason, Moore, at 5’11’’, lacks favorable size for his position, but he shined as a playmaker for the Golden Bears, assisting on 31.2% of his team’s field goals while on the floor during Pac-12 play, the second-highest rate in the conference, according to Kenpom.com. Moore, who will have three years of eligibility for the Jayhawks starting in 2018–19, will spend this season practicing with the program while preparing to fill in for starting point guard Devonte’ Graham.
Dedric Lawson: A former McDonald’s All-American from Memphis who once looked like the centerpiece of the next great Tigers team. Instead, he spent two seasons posting commendable per-game numbers for squads that finished no better than fifth in a non-Power 5 league (the American Athletic Conference) and failed to qualify for the NCAAs. Lawson opted to leave home with his brother this spring, as critics questioned the direction of the program under second-year coach Tubby Smith. Lawson will sit out this season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules, but he projects as a frontcourt starter in 2018–19.
K.J. Lawson: A 6’7’’ forward who bounced back from an Achilles injury to average 12.3 points over 32 games in 2016–17. K.J. isn’t as highly regarded as his brother, though he rated out as one of the AAC’s best defensive rebounders last season (19.5 DR% in conference play). He’ll be a solid rotation cog who can facilitate lineup versatility by lining up at multiple positions. K.J. was caught on video in April making a profane remark about Smith, but he later apologized.
In an era when prospects just months removed from prom night wield outsized influence on regular and postseason competition, Self has constructed an outfit using seasoned players looking for fresh starts or satisfying send-offs. The appeal of this approach is plain: Instead of relying on unproven blue-chippers who may need some time to acclimate to the physicality of the college game, most transfers should be ready to hit the ground running after spending a year training with their new team, and others who’ve graduated with immediate eligibility have already logged dozens of games elsewhere. Plus, whereas staffs often spend oodles of time and resources courting five-stars, the jockeying for transfers is, in most cases, less demanding.
That said, it would be foolish to downplay the upside of landing one or more of the best high school players in the country. Recruiting analysts whiff from time to time, but for the most part, the guys taking up residence near or at the top of the rankings make good on their exalted reputations by outshining collegians two or three years their senior. More coaches would sign them if they could, despite the impression given off by the “Is Kentucky is ruining college basketball?” debate that has hovered over the sport during the last half-decade. Self has lured a horde of recruits of this caliber to Kansas and benefited handsomely in the process; Josh Jackson’s lustrous stint last year as a playmaking-four-cum-defensive-ace is just the latest example.
Self has tapped the elite-recruit well this season, too: Billy Preston, a 6’10’’ power forward out of Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, is en route. Yet no matter how large Preston’s impact, the most notable trait of Self’s next team will be its collection of defectors, even though not all of them will be able to play. This experiment will be intriguing on its own terms, and its rippling effects could be felt across the upper tier of college basketball. If Kansas keeps racking up Big 12 crown/top-two seed twin bills without much fuss, could other top programs be compelled to dip into the transfer market more often? With full recognition that no method of roster construction will be perfectly replicated on a large scale, and that scholarship math may complicate things in every case, the temptation to add free agents could well grow.
That possibility will only amplify the cognitive dissonance of media members who praise Self for his long-running dominion over the Big 12 while also raising alarms about the “transfer culture” plaguing college basketball. There might be an urge to shine the sort of critical light on the Jayhawks that was aimed at Kentucky after the Wildcats won their first national title under coach John Calipari thanks in no small measure to a star-studded recruiting class fronted by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Those critiques would completely miss the point; the hypothetical of high-major heavyweights trawling smaller leagues for a shooter or shot-blocker or whatever they want every off-season is unrealistic.
The Jayhawks could fortify their roster with these coveted transfers because of their unique appeal as a transfer destination. Self didn’t build this castle, but he’s bankrolled a brigade of archers for security, decorated the great hall with Rembrandts and stocked the kitchen with dry-aged meats and the finest merlots. Yet the same reasons why the program is alluring to players on the move would hamper other programs’ efforts to attract them. Who wouldn’t want to spend a season or more laying waste to a Power 5 league while basking in the national limelight and either putting oneself on the radar of or elevating one’s stature in the eyes of NBA scouts? In the transfer market, Kansas is one of the few programs that can pluck only marshmallows from the Lucky Charms box.
But just because the Jayhawks can bring in those guys basically whenever they want doesn’t mean they will. Self did not set out this off-season to construct a roster heavy on imports. He adapted, patching holes left by recruiting misses (like Collin Sexton and Troy Brown) and unanticipated exits (such as Dwight Coleby, Carlton Bragg and possibly Mykhailiuk). “In a perfect world, go out and sign five guys each fall that are all guys that can make your program better,” Self said. He added, “It was a situation that we’d shot most of our bullets in the fall and missed out on some guys. So when guys unexpectedly leave in the spring, we’ve got to make up for those.” The transfer influx, then, was less a deliberate shift in approach than an adjustment to circumstance, and it evinces a resourcefulness that has enabled Self to keep stacking Ws, personnel turnover be damned.
Some of the additions will pay off this season, but Kansas’s transfer haul also shores up the Jayhawks’ future by insuring against potential departures at a time when dozens of underclassmen declare for the draft with little hope of actually being selected. It seems doubtful, for example, that Newman, who entered the draft last year before withdrawing, would play more than one season at Kansas, and returnees like center Udoka Azubuike and Vick could follow him out the door. There’s also Preston, who, at nearly 20 years old, may be tempted to bolt for the pros next spring. “You’ve got a chance to get established players that know your system, that you can count on right off the bat,” Self said of the transfers. “Rather than rolling the dice with fall recruitment and then maybe not getting who you want.”
With Newman, Whitman and Cunliffe (after fall semester) eligible, Kansas will enter 2017–18 on the short list of national title contenders and as the odds-on favorite to notch another Big 12 title, thereby breaking UCLA’s record of 13 consecutive crowns from 1967–79. (Only Baylor, West Virginia and Texas look capable of even making the Jayhawks sweat in late February.) Even without knowing who’ll be around a year from now, it’s safe to assume similar expectations will apply heading into 2018–19, when the Lawsons and Moore suit up. After that, Self might turn back to the high school ranks to pull a few top-25 prospects. Then maybe he’ll count on veterans to do the heavy lifting. The process is far less important than the result: Self builds great teams, year after year.
Tim Balk contributed research.