Big 12 Burning Questions: Kansas Jayhawks

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 10th, 2017

This preview is part of RTC’s 2017-18 preseason coverage.

Burning Question: How much will Kansas’ small ball lineups compensate for another thin frontcourt?

It took some time for Bill Self to embrace both his roster and basketball’s changing landscape in the era of pace and space, but he did just that in 2017, even if it took a season-ending injury to center Udoka Azubuike to fully make the leap. Three-pointers comprised 35.9 percent of Kansas’ shot attempts last season, the highest rate of any of Self’s teams during his illustrious career. The Jayhawks connected on 40 percent of those tries from distance, powering them to a highly successful season that included an 18-game winning streak, a 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, and a run to the Elite Eight. With a National Player of the Year leading his backcourt, a lottery pick on the wing and a heady center like Landen Lucas patrolling the middle, Self once again succeeded without the services of a deep stable of big men. The question for this season is whether Kansas can continue playing that way without any of those three elements in place — because the pressure will certainly once again be on Kansas’ guards to convert from deep.

Devonte’ Graham knows what the 2017-18 Jayhawks will be all about. (Getty)

Kansas’ backourt shouldn’t regress significantly from last year despite the departure of NPOY Frank Mason. Devonte’ Graham will lead the charge as the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, but transfer guard Malik Newman could become the team’s leading scorer after sitting out last year. The redshirt sophomore averaged 32.5 points per 40 minutes during the Jayhawks’ August trip to Italy, and while those numbers aren’t fully indicative of how he will fare against better competition, they may provide a hint of what to expect. It feels like Svi Mykhailiuk has tested the waters every summer he’s been in Lawrence, but he’s back in a Kansas uniform for his senior year. The Ukrainian can get hot in a hurry and play some point guard in a pinch, but he’s also a defensive liability that clearly frustrates Self from time to time.

One player Self hasn’t been nearly as quick to criticize lately is junior LaGerald Vick. Earlier in the offseason, Self proclaimed Vick as one of the most underrated players in the Big 12. The big guard is in a somewhat odd position for this roster, however — he’s a decent but not prolific three-point shooter, which isn’t enough to propel him over Mykhailiuk in a traditional lineup; and he was often outmanned on the glass last season, so he’s not exactly a small ball frontcourt presence either. Either of those things could change, however, and if they do, Kansas will have a much easier time overcoming its biggest weakness entering the season. Another interesting piece of the roster puzzle could relate to freshman point guard Marcus Garrett. At 6’5″ and 180 pounds, Garrett offers a level of size that Kansas hasn’t traditionally deployed at that position, but again, considering the current roster construction, he should get some opportunities to show what he can do even if they come at other spots on the floor.

Down low, Azubuike is available and fully healthy after sustaining a season-ending wrist injury last year, but Lucas, who played so well in Azubuike’s absence, is gone. Kansas wasn’t able to do much to fill his gap on the low block, although it wasn’t for a lack of effort. Dwight Coleby defected to Western Kentucky and his replacement, William and Mary graduate transfer Jack Whitman, didn’t pan out after a short stay in Lawrence. That leaves freshman Billy Preston and sophomore Mitch Lightfoot as the roster’s only other scholarship big men when the curtains open tonight. Preston is extremely athletic and possesses fascinating range for someone his size, but neither his effort nor toughness are at levels Self wants from his freshman, as he tends to spend much of his time floating along the perimeter rather than battling inside. Lightfoot will get some opportunities because of his experience, familiarity with Kansas’ playbook and his eagerness to play the high-energy, low-volume role on the team, but he doesn’t exactly ooze upside at this point in his career. Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe will be available at the end of the fall semester, but while he was engaged on the defensive glass in his brief time in Tempe, he will be more of a wing at 6’6″ than a big man.

The Jayhawks’ continued stranglehold on the rest of the conference should continue, but it is not difficult to spot the gaps in their personnel. Whether Kansas can once again paper over a thin frontcourt with white-hot shooting will determine this team’s destiny in 2017-18.

Brian Goodman (945 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.


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