For the past 13 years — after nearly every practice and every game — the Kansas Jayhawks have broken their huddle with the same chant: “BIG 12 CHAMPS!”
It’s among the subtle methods Bill Self uses to keep his players locked in during the regular season, to help them focus on winning a league title instead of thinking ahead to the NCAA Tournament.
Thirteen straight times now, the tactic has worked. Kansas has claimed at least a share of every Big 12 championship since 2005 — a 13-year run of league dominance matched only by UCLA from 1967-79. Fueled by one of the nation’s top backcourts — and with the rest of the league in a state of flux — there’s no reason to believe the Jayhawks won’t set a Division I record by capturing a 14th straight crown in 2017-18.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Bill Self
2016-17 RECORD (Big 12): 31–5 (16–2)
2016-17 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Oregon 74–60 in the Elite Eight
F Carlton Bragg Jr. (5.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
G Josh Jackson (16.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg)
F Landen Lucas (8.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg)
G Frank Mason III (20.9 ppg, 5.2 apg)
As lethal as Kansas will be on the perimeter, the Jayhawks are as vulnerable in the paint as they’ve ever been under Self. The main issue is a lack of depth. The loss of senior Landen Lucas and the departures of Dwight Coleby (transfer) and Jack Whitman (left the program after transferring in following the 2016-17 season) have left Kansas with just three post players — all of whom lack experience.
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The most intriguing player down low will be Udoka Azubuike, a 7'0", 280-pound behemoth who was averaging 5.0 points and 4.4 rebounds before a wrist injury ended his freshman season after just 11 games. Azubuike dominated the Jayhawks’ offseason workouts and could become one of college basketball’s breakthrough players in 2017-18. The biggest hurdle for Azubuike, Self says, will be staying out of foul trouble.
That will also be a focus for freshman Billy Preston, a McDonald’s All-American who will likely be thrust into a starting role before he’s ready. A 6'10" athletic phenom, Preston can handle the ball like a guard, making him a tough matchup for opposing forwards. The key for Preston will be how quickly he adapts to the mental part of the game — and Self’s tough-love coaching style. Reserve forward Mitch Lightfoot should play a significant role off the bench.
The departures of All-American Frank Mason and lottery pick Josh Jackson haven’t done anything to squelch optimism about the Jayhawks’ perimeter game. That’s mainly because of the return of senior Devonte’ Graham, a 41.2 percent career 3-point shooter who is also the Jayhawks’ vocal leader. “There’s no question,” Self says, “that this is Devonte’s team.”
Joining Graham in the backcourt will be Malik Newman, a McDonald’s All-American who played one year at Mississippi State before relocating to Kansas. A volume shooter, Newman should combine with Graham to form one of the highest-scoring backcourts in the country.
The threats won’t stop there in Kansas’ small-ball attack. Competing for the third guard spot will be senior Svi Mykhailiuk, who ranked fourth on the team in scoring (9.8 ppg) last season, and junior Lagerald Vick. Once considered a potential first-round NBA Draft pick, Mykhailiuk has yet to live up to expectations, as his streaky shooting and average defensive play have opened the door for Vick, a high flyer who scores in multiple ways.
Kansas is also hoping Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe, a former top-50 recruit, contributes quality minutes when he becomes eligible in December.
Kansas will play small ball to take advantage of a guard-heavy roster talented enough to propel the Jayhawks to their first Final Four since 2012. A record 14th straight Big 12 title also seems likely, as there appears to be a considerable gap between Self’s squad and the rest of the league.