Perry Ellis leads a veteran Kansas team with Final Four potential
One of the most impressive streaks in college basketball history is alive and well in the Big 12, where the Kansas Jayhawks are the favorites to capture a 12th straight conference title. “Winning the league is always our top goal,” point guard Frank Mason says. “But this year we’ve got our sights set on bigger things, too.”
Understandably so. After losing in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 the past two seasons, Kansas boasts a roster that appears built to give the school its first Final Four berth since 2012. Along with eye-popping size, length and depth, the Jayhawks will also be one of the nation’s most experienced teams. Kansas returns eight players who averaged double-digit minutes a year ago, and that doesn’t include incoming freshmen Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg, two McDonald’s All-Americans.
“We’ve definitely got the pieces,” coach Bill Self says. “We’ve just got to find a way to make them all fit.”
All Big 12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
With leading scorer Perry Ellis returning for his senior year, the Jayhawks will be as deep as any team in the country down low. Ellis averaged just under 14 points in each of the last two seasons, and his ability to score in the paint, from mid-range and beyond the arc makes him a difficult matchup. Self has long expressed his displeasure with Ellis’ lackluster play on defense, an aspect of his game that Ellis has vowed to improve.
As successful as Ellis has been, he may end up playing second fiddle to Diallo, a 6'9", 218-pounder who is known for his motor, toughness and physicality — something the Jayhawks have lacked in recent years. The MVP of both the McDonald’s All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic, Diallo is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
Diallo and Ellis are far from Kansas’ only weapons. Forward Jamari Traylor, a fifth-year senior, is a favorite of Self because of his work ethic and grit. He averaged 20 minutes last season and will be in the rotation again. Senior Hunter Mickelson finally appears ready to make significant contributions after transferring from Arkansas, and 240-pound bruiser Landen Lucas showed flashes of brilliance toward the end of the 2014-15 campaign. Mickelson and Lucas are both 6'10". The wild card of the bunch is Bragg, a versatile forward who can score in multiple ways.
No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks Facts & Figures
Last season: 27–9, 13–5 Big 12
Postseason: Second round
Consecutive NCAAs: 26
Big 12 Projection: 1
Postseason Projection: Elite Eight
Impressive as it is down low, the depth in Kansas’ backcourt may be even more eye-popping. Mason, who averaged 12.6 points and 3.9 assists as a sophomore, should be one of the most improved players in the Big 12 after leading the U.S. to the gold medal in the World University Games. Self has always been a fan of Mason’s bulldog mentality, often comparing him to former KU All-American Sherron Collins. But only recently has Mason displayed the type of leadership skills that helped Collins lead the Jayhawks to the national title.
Mason will likely be part of a three-guard lineup that will also include junior Wayne Selden and sophomore Devonte’ Graham. A McDonald’s All-American in high school, Selden has been a mild disappointment thus far. He averaged just 9.4 points a year ago and failed to show up in big games, going scoreless in Kansas’ NCAA Tournament loss to Wichita State. Self, though, says that Selden was the team’s best player in the World University Games. If he and Graham (who averaged 23.4 minutes in Kansas’ final seven games last season) continue to make strides, Kansas’ backcourt could be lethal, especially considering what the Jayhawks have on the bench.
Brannen Greene is a 6'7" sharpshooter who went 17-of-24 from 3-point range during one stretch last season. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is a 6'8" combo guard from Ukraine who saw limited action as a freshman. Don’t be surprised if Mykhailiuk is Kansas’ first guard off the bench in 2015-16. His ability to play all three guard spots and his high basketball IQ are the main reasons he’s projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.
Key Losses: F Cliff Alexander, G Kelly Oubre
Top Players: G Frank Mason, G Wayne Selden, F Jamari Traylor, F Cheick Diallo, F Perry Ellis
Cheick Diallo gives Kansas the physical, intimidating presence it has lacked in the paint since the graduation of Jeff Withey in 2013. But the likely one-and-done is skilled, too. Carlton Bragg’s athleticism and offensive versatility would earn him a starting spot at most schools, but he may have trouble earning significant minutes as a freshman in KU’s crowded frontcourt.
Other than Iowa State, which has a new head coach, there doesn’t appear to be a team in the Big 12 with enough talent or manpower to challenge the Jayhawks for the league title. The bigger issue will be whether Kansas can return to the Final Four for the first time in four years — and perhaps claim its first NCAA championship since 2008. With this roster, nothing is out of the question.