There’s a reason KU is heavily favored to win 11th straight Big 12 title
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 — the one that won a national championship.
"This is a team like that in that there’s not a first, second or third pick right now," said Self, whose fifth-ranked Jayhawks open Friday night against UC Santa Barbara.
"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. That 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 program’s highly touted freshmen.
Mario Chalmers, now with the Miami Heat, was the point guard that made everything happen – a role now being 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.
There is also talented Ukrainian freshman Svi Mykhailiuk and sophomore sharpshooter Brannen Greene.
Versatile guard Conner Frankamp was expected to be part of that group battling for minutes after playing 27 games as a freshman and averaging 11.0 points in two NCAA tournament games, hitting seven 3-pointers. However, Frankamp announced two weeks ago he had decided to transfer at the end of the semester in hopes of more playing time.
"We’ve lost obviously a very good shooter," Self said, "but we may have also gained some chemistry issues, where now I think guys will be more locked in and more able to probably figure out what their role will be."
All of that other talent still make the Jayhawks 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 the floor became painfully obvious.
That’s a big reason why it 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 fully 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."
While Kansas has so many options, UC Santa Barbara has a clear go-to guy in Alan Williams. The Big West player of the year led all Division I players with 11.5 rebounds per game and finished 13th in scoring at 21.3 points as a junior.
Williams led the Gauchos to a 21-9 record and second place in the conference – where they’re picked to finish this season – though they lost in the first round of the Big West tournament.
Williams scored a game-high 23 in UC Santa Barbara’s only matchup with a ranked team last season, an 89-76 loss to UCLA, but the game was tied at halftime.
Kansas beat the Gauchos 72-52 in 2003 in the teams’ only previous meeting.