Retooled Jayhawks have sights set on a national title

Cliff Alexander is a big reason why the Jayhawks are the heavy favorite to win their 11th straight Big 12 title.

Denny Medley/Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas had two of the first three players taken in the NBA draft last year, yet coach Bill Self believes the Jayhawks could be even better than the team led by Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.

Just how much better? Well, he’s already comparing it to the 2008 team.

That would be the team that won the national championship.

"This is a team like that in that there’s not a first, second or third pick right now," Self said. "I mean, I’m not saying somebody couldn’t become that eventually, but right now there’s not. I wouldn’t think. But we’ve got a whole bunch of good players and I’m excited about that because we do have good basketball players. We’ve got depth. We don’t have much size."

In other words, they have similar pieces to that title team.

Brandon Rush, an athletic swingman, was arguably the most talented player that year. His role this season could be filled by Wayne Selden Jr., a sophomore who had moments of brilliance last year, or Kelly Oubre Jr., one of the highly touted freshmen that have arrived on campus.

Mario Chalmers, now with the Miami Heat, was the point guard that made everything happen. His role will be played by Frank Mason or Devonte’ Graham, another of the first-year players.

Cole Aldrich, Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson provided the beef on the team that beat Memphis in overtime for the national championship. That job will fall to athletic forward Perry Ellis, transfer Hunter Mickelson, veteran Jamari Traylor or five-star prospect Cliff Alexander.

That’s just the start of the riches at Self’s disposal.

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There is also talented Ukrainian freshman Svi Mykhailiuk, sophomore sharpshooter Brannen Greene and versatile guard Conner Frankamp who will be battling for minutes.

Lots of names. Lots of talent.

No wonder the Jayhawks are the heavy favorite to win their 11th straight Big 12 title.

"We are pretty deep and pretty skilled at most of the positions," Self said, "and whether or not that translates to better teams, because a lot of teams, they give me two studs and three average guys and we’ll go play anybody, and I’m not sure we’re quite like that. I think we’ve got a whole bunch of really good players, a lot of balance."

The truth is that balance was sorely lacking last season.

Sure, Wiggins was an incredible talent, but he also disappeared at times. And when Embiid hurt his back late in the season, causing him to miss the entire NCAA tournament, the trouble that Kansas had on the defensive end of floor became painfully obvious.

That’s a big reason why the Jayhawks failed to escape the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.

"It’s a long season and everybody is going to have to step up to the occasion," Traylor said. "Some games, one guy is going to have a good game, then it’s going to be another guy who steps up in the next game. We’re pretty talented, so it could be anybody."

Along with defensive difficulties, the Jayhawks also were missing a certain toughness last year that they had established over time. Self first noticed it during a few lackluster performances over the Big 12 schedule, but it really reared its head in a season-ending loss to Stanford.

That issue may have been solved by the Jayhawks’ freshman class.

"This group is competitive," Ellis said. "The first day they came in, they didn’t back down to any of the older guys and I think that’s great, because it makes us all better. That’s the thing I really see, they’re all competitive and they just want to get better."

Kansas opens its season Nov. 14 against UC-Santa Barbara, but things get a whole lot tougher in a hurry. The Jayhawks face Kentucky in Indianapolis four days later, part of another brutal schedule that includes games against Florida, Georgetown, UNLV and Temple.

All before the Big 12, which many believe will be the nation’s toughest conference.

"We had a long season last season," Selden said. "We didn’t end up where we wanted to end up and if we can just take the good things from our season and leave out the negatives, then we can build from there."