Kansas has all the parts to win the whole thing
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Bill Self was sprawled in his spacious office earlier this fall, contemplating all his weapons – an embarrassment of riches, truly – and how he plans to use them during the upcoming season.
All around him were the mementoes of his 12 seasons of success at Kansas: The signed photographs of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, the framed Sports Illustrated cover of “Mario’s Miracle,” the aerial photo of the Lawrence street celebrations the night of Self’s 2008 national championship.
And yet for Self, the past was the past. Eleven straight Big 12 regular-season championships were already in the books. He was fixated on No. 12.
When you’re wondering what his chances are to extend the most impressive current streak in American sports – and when you’re wondering his chances are to make his first Final Four since 2012 – consider this:
The 20115-16 Kansas Jayhawks are, on paper at least, Bill Self’s deepest team since he got to Lawrence.
This isn’t just me saying this. It’s Self. It’s his assistant coaches. It’s anyone who looks at his roster, really, and tries to find a missing piece. (Hint: There isn’t one.)
And it’s that depth – plus the combination of experience and youthful talent, the excitement around Self’s plan to put two slashing point guards on the floor at the same time, the fact he has two of the best shooters in college basketball in Brannen Greene and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, the whole damn package, really – that makes the Kansas Jayhawks my preseason pick to win the national title.
With one giant-sized asterisk, of course.
“We need Cheick to get eligible,” Self said.
Cheick, of course, is Cheick Diallo, the freshman big man from Mali who is projected to be a lottery pick but who has yet to be cleared by the NCAA. Self was speaking about Diallo not long before Diallo hired an attorney to help fight what has already become a prolonged battle to become eligible to play this season.
Diallo is only one player on a Kansas team that goes 12 players deep, but his eligibility is absolutely key for Kansas. If he’s eligible, Kansas gets what Self terms a “difference-maker” – an elite athlete with a motor that always runs hot, a nose for rebounds and a talent at blocking shots. If he’s not eligible, Kansas has to get a bit more creative down low, which would mean patching the only hole on a team that otherwise is as balanced as any in college basketball.
Here are the reasons I believe Kansas will be the next national champion in a season that appears as wide open as any in recent memory:
1. Self’s best teams have typically had two point guards. In Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, Self plans to have two point guards who start every game together. Mason, in particular, has come into his own over the past year and ought to be considered one of the top point guards in college hoops.
2. Self has two dead-eye three-point shooters who’ll likely come off the bench in Mykhailiuk – another possible lottery pick, and still one of the youngest players in college basketball in his second season – and Greene, who Self calls the best pure shooter in college hoops. Here’s what Self recently said about the Ukrainian Mykhailiuk: “He can get on a roll. I think he made 27 threes in a row in a shooting drill. I was just going, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And this was a drill, game speed.”
3. Junior Wayne Selden, who was considered a one-and-done possibility before his freshman season, is finally healthy, and coaches believe he’s primed for a breakout season. Expect him to play as a slashing wing who crashes the glass instead of a player who too often lacked aggressiveness and settled for outside shots the past two years. Self called Selden the most important player on this team.
4. What senior forward Perry Ellis lacks in flash he makes up for in dependability. By the end of this year he very well could be an 1,800-point scorer for his career, which would put him in the top 10 at Kansas all time. Death, taxes, Perry Ellis.
We need Cheick (Diallo) to get eligible.
Kansas head coach Bill Self
5. Every coach on the Kansas staff seemed excited about the team’s other elite freshman, Carlton Bragg, an athletic power forward with perimeter skills. Self compared him to a player who brings up pleasant basketball memories for Kansas fans: Marcus Morris.
But cast aside the fantasy basketball-like, on-paper guesswork of looking at a deep, talented roster and projecting great things. Let’s talk about something that’s already happened, and that’s Kansas’ trip to South Korea last summer as the American representative for the World University Games. (The Jayhawks came back with America’s first gold medal there since 2005.)
The unlimited practices the team was allowed to have leading up to the trip is a huge advantage. Part of the secret behind Kentucky’s unbelievable run to the Final Four last season was that the Wildcats took their young team on a trip to the Bahamas in the summer and got in 10 practices and a handful of exhibition games.
“It’s made an unbelievable difference,” Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend told me last month. “We’re a month ahead of schedules because of all the summer practices we had. Usually our freshmen would be totally lost and Coach would just be putting in the offense. But right now we’re practicing, and we already know the stuff.”
Keep looking deeper. When Kansas was playing in Korea, it was playing teams that were almost all taller and bigger (and suspiciously older). And the Jayhawks hung in there.
And best of all, they got a head start on college basketball’s transition to a new 30-second shot clock. In Korea, the game was even faster, with the 24-second shot clock of the international game. It forced the Jayhawks to play fast and with urgency. It forced them to learn how to get good shots up quickly.
For Self, it was exhilarating. It was fun.
“The thing about the 24-second clock, you don’t have time to run a lot of plays to get a shot,” Self told me. “You have to rely on players to get shots. So that makes coaches trust your players more. It opens me up more to trust guys, to trust players to go play one-on-one – not for yourself, but play one –on-one to go get somebody else a shot. Drive to pass. We emphasized that so much this summer.”
My optimism about Kansas will be curtailed if Diallo doesn’t play. But losing Diallo could make this one of the most intriguing teams in college hoops, if not the best team. Self would be forced to play small ball constantly. Bragg and Ellis would get a lot of time on the floor together, which Self believes could open up lanes for Selden.
Self even talked up senior center Hunter Mickelson as a much-improved pick-and-pop guy who can block shots – though I’m not sure counting on a role player who played seven minutes a game last season is a recipe for a title. Having five guys who can space the floor sounds like some new-wave basketball.
But for now, keep that asterisk next to this pick. Until Diallo is eligible, this is a team with only one glaring hole. But if he is able to find his way onto the court at Allen Fieldhouse this season, I fully expect Bill Self to win his 12th consecutive Big 12 title, make his third Final Four and cut down the nets for the national title his second time.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.