College basketball season is creeping up fast, and Athlon Sports is counting down to Midnight Madness and the start of practice on Oct. 17.
No. 5 Kansas won its 10th consecutive Big Ten title and managed to stay in the top 10 for most of the season despite the toughest schedule in the country. Yet the year felt incomplete with an injury to Joel Embiid and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks lose two of the top three picks in the NBA draft but reload with another standout recruiting class joining a group of veterans to challenge for another Final Four.
The Kansas edition is one of dozens available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere now.
Last year’s Kansas basketball team won 25 games, captured a 10th straight Big 12 title and had two of the first three players selected in the NBA Draft. Still, to most Jayhawks fans, 2013-14 will be remembered as a disappointment.
“We had a good season — but not a great one,” coach Bill Self says. “To have a great season you have to perform well in March, and that’s something we weren’t able to accomplish.”
Indeed, even with three McDonald’s All-Americans in the starting lineup and a partisan crowd in the stands, No. 2 seed Kansas wasn’t able to get past No. 10 Stanford in the third round of the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis. Kansas — which lost 10 games for the first time since 1999-2000, will now have to regroup without standouts Andrew Wiggins (the No. 1 overall pick) and Joel Embiid (No. 3).
Self hardly seems discouraged. “I don’t think we’ll take a step back at all,” says the coach. “If anything, I think we have a chance to be better.”
No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks Facts & Figures
Last season: 25-10, 14-4 Big 12
Postseason: NCAA round of 32
Consecutive NCAAs: 25
Coach: Bill Self (325-69 at Kansas, 151-31 Big 12)
Big 12 Projection: First
Postseason Projection: NCAA Elite Eight
The hoopla surrounding Embiid last season caused Perry Ellis to go unnoticed at times, but that didn’t stop the former McDonald’s All-American from ranking second on the team in points (13.5 ppg) and rebounds (6.7 rpg). Ellis, whose strength on offense is his versatility, was one of the most impressive players at the LeBron James Skills Academy in July and should contend for Big 12 Player of the Year honors. His biggest challenge will be on defense, where his lackluster play has been a sore spot with Self.
As promising as Ellis has looked, incoming freshman Cliff Alexander could be even better. A consensus top-3 recruit, Alexander is a 6-9, 240-pound bruiser who should give the Jayhawks an imposing presence in the paint.
The battle for playing time should be fierce among Kansas’ other post players. Junior Jamari Traylor averaged 4.1 rebounds in just 16 minutes off the bench last year. His experience, energy and hustle make him a favorite to be in the rotation. Landen Lucas played sparingly as a redshirt freshman but was one of the most improved players by the end of the season. Self is also high on former Arkansas center Hunter Mickelson, a shot-blocker who sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules.
For the third straight year, Kansas enters the season unproven at the most important position on the court. Naadir Tharpe, who started all but four games at the point a year ago, left the team during the offseason. Even if Tharpe had stayed, he likely would’ve been replaced by Frank Mason, Conner Frankamp (both sophomores) or incoming freshman Devonte’ Graham.
Mason averaged 16 minutes per game as a freshman, and Self loves his fearlessness and toughness. But he can be erratic at times. Frankamp is an outstanding 3-point shooter who may be better suited for shooting guard. Graham, a former Appalachian State signee who got out of his letter of intent last spring, could end up being one of the steals of the 2014 recruiting class. Don’t be surprised if he starts as a freshman.
The Jayhawks are absolutely loaded at shooting guard and small forward with sophomores Frankamp, Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene and freshmen Kelly Oubre and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Selden entered last season as a projected NBA Lottery pick, but he struggled to stand out alongside Wiggins and Embiid and never really asserted himself offensively. This year should be different.
The 6-7 Oubre is a consensus top-10 recruit who picked the Jayhawks over schools such as Florida, Kentucky and Louisville. The lefthander can light it up from long range but also loves to attack the basket. Greene, who has an NBA body and skill set, is hoping to see his playing time increase after averaging just 6.6 minutes as a freshman.
The best player of all, though, could end up being Mykhailuk, a Ukraine native whom one NBA scout tabbed as the best foreign-born player since Ricky Rubio.
Kansas should win its 11th straight Big 12 title, but the Jayhawks’ hopes of a lengthy NCAA Tournament run will depend largely on their point guard, whoever that may be. It will also be vital for Alexander and Oubre — both likely one-and-doners — to live up to lofty expectations.
Cliff Alexander could be one of the most physical players in the league despite being a freshman. Kelly Oubre is an NBA prospect who is a threat from the perimeter and the paint. Devonte’ Graham has been impressive during offseason workouts and could start at point guard. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk turned 17 in June but could be one of the league’s best players if he adapts physically. He could be a top-10 pick in two years. Hunter Mickelson is a shot-blocker who transferred from Arkansas.