Kansas’ Backcourt Leads the Way But Questions Abound Inside

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 23rd, 2016

The biggest question facing Kansas as it entered this season centered around the team’s frontcourt. The loss of stalwart Perry Ellis was going to loom large until Bill Self could turn his rotation of big men into a serviceable enough unit to balance a supremely skilled backcourt. Now two weeks into the season and with the toughest part of the Jayhawds’ non-conference schedule in the books, that question remains unanswered. It may even be blurrier than it was in October. In addition to newcomers Dwight Coleby and Udoka Azubuike struggling to earn consistent minutes in Self’s rotation, veteran Landen Lucas has regressed and sophomore Carlton Bragg has yet to find a rhythm as well.

Kansas (USA Today Images)

Kansas Needs to Solve Its Interior Issues but the Backcourt is Excelling (USA Today Images)

Kansas’ frontcourt issues came to a head last night despite a 65-54 victory over Georgia at the CBE Classic in Kansas City. Bulldogs forward Yante Maten roasted every big man Kansas threw at him, dominating the back line with 30 points and 13 rebounds. Lucas, who expertly used his intelligence and size to pull away with the starting center spot last season, was saddled with foul trouble, his latest in a string of lackluster outings. Azubuike, a freshman who logged an inspiring performance against Duke just a week ago, played only five minutes. Collectively, the Jayhawks’ four big men were a mess: five points on 2-of-5 shooting, seven rebounds and 15 fouls, although Coleby gave admirable energy and effort in his first extended run of the season, blocking four shots and grabbing four rebounds. Kansas’ struggles to defend Georgia without fouling led to another rare sighting from a Self-coached team: the deployment of a 2-3 zone. To the team’s credit, the defensive maneuver keyed a decisive second-half run, but that may have had more to do with the fact that it wasn’t a look Georgia had prepared for. These were extenuating circumstances indeed.

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Feast Week Mission Briefing: Kansas at the CBE Hall of Fame Classic

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 21st, 2016

Feast Week is here. To get you ready for the Big 12’s representation in the various holiday tournaments over the next week, our Feast Week Mission Briefings continue today with Kansas in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic.

What They’ve Done So Far: In a break from the norm for traditional powers, Kansas has already played the toughest part of its non-conference schedule. The Jayhawks fell in overtime to Indiana on the first night of the season before edging Duke at the Champions Classic, both in neutral settings. Frank Mason has been fantastic to open the year; Not only did he bury a clutch jumper to sink the Blue Devils last Tuesday, but he has led the Jayhawks in scoring in each of their first three games and has taken advantage of the new officiating directives to make 30 trips to the free throw line (converting 76.6 percent of his attempts). Perhaps feeling tired legs from their trips to Hawaii and New York, the Jayhawks had some trouble shaking Siena for most of their home opener on Friday night, but pulled away late for an 86-65 win.

Frank Mason has come up big early for Kansas. Will the Jayhawks need to rely on him again this week in Kansas City? (Nick Krug/Lawrence Journal-World)

Opening Round Preview: Kansas opens against UAB in what would have been a reunion for former Jayhawks guard Jerod Haase, but Haase left the Blazers’ post over the summer to take the head coaching job at Stanford. UAB hasn’t played a very tough schedule to date, but they’ve held opponents to 36.3 percent shooting inside the arc, largely on the prowess of big man William Lee (13 rejections through three games). Kansas has meanwhile been very dependent on its inside game, ranking among the bottom 30 nationally in 3PA/FGA and shooting a miserable 23.1 percent from beyond the arc. A strong performance from Carlton Bragg to follow up a career game against Siena (15 points and 11 rebounds) would go a long way toward avoiding an upset tonight, especially if his teammates have another cold outside shooting night. Read the rest of this entry »

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Kansas Already Battle Tested Just Five Days Into Season

Posted by Justin Fedich on November 16th, 2016

Only two games into the new season, Kansas has already endured one crushing defeat and one thrilling victory. The Jayhawks responded from a 103-99 overtime loss to Indiana on Friday night in Hawaii to outlast top-ranked Duke 77-75 in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden last night. No high-major team outside of arguably Michigan State has been challenged nearly as much. Senior guard Frank Mason has stolen the show to this point, scoring 30 points against Indiana and hitting the game-winning jump shot last night against Duke.

The tourney upsets his Kansas teams have suffered will not be forgotten (Getty).

The Kansas program has never shied away from testing itself early against elite programs and this year is no exception. (Getty)

What Adjustments Did Kansas Make? Even with Duke’s three highly-touted freshman sidelined, Bill Self’ needed to make some adjustments from the Indiana game to avoid falling to 0-2. The biggest shift came in the contributions of 6’11” freshman Udoka Azubuike off the bench. After playing only seven minutes and failing to score against the Hoosiers, Azubuike added six points and pulled down 12 big rebounds against Duke. It was clear that Self wanted to expose Duke’s lack of size down low with 6’10” Harry Giles and 6’11” Marques Bolden sitting on the bench. After being the only Kansas starter to not foul out in the game against Indiana, freshman Josh Jackson played much more aggressively for most of last night’s game before fouling out. Still, he scored 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field, putting all three Kansas starting guards into double figures (Mason, 21; Devonte’ Graham, 15). Using Jackson on the wing and Azubuike inside to balance things offensively is the formula Kansas needs rather than relying on Mason, who scored 30 points against Indiana, to consistently contribute such a heavy load. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rushed Reactions: #7 Kansas 77, #1 Duke 75

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 16th, 2016

RTC’s Brian Otskey (@botskey) and Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) are providing on-site coverage of the Champions Classic this evening.

Three Key Takeaways.

Frank. Mason. For the Win. (USA Today Images)

Frank. Mason. For the Win. (USA Today Images)

  1. Josh Jackson’s coming out party has commenced. Following a disappointing nine-point debut on 3-for-11 shooting against Indiana, the 6’8″ freshman posted 15 points on just nine shots tonight. His obvious hesitancy and discomfort in the first game and a half of his career forced Frank Mason into the role of primary scorer while pressuring other players such as Devonte’ Graham to fill the void. But Jackson broke out in the second half, using his length to defend the passing lanes while creating for himself at will on the offensive end. There will be ups and downs this season for a player like Jackson, but the obvious sentiment is that Bill Self needs him fully locked in come March.
  2. Stopping Duke on offense is already a headache. The hype around NPOY candidate Grayson Allen is warranted, but the Blue Devils have five legitimate scoring threats and the lineup versatility to match almost any team even without their heralded freshmen. Sophomore Luke Kennard is capable of playing a stretch four role, but Duke can also go big by playing senior Amile Jefferson alongside the shot blocking center Chase Jeter. The Jeter/Kennard toggle provides Coach K with the ability to choose between offense and defense without having to drastically alter his lineups. Given the team’s current inside-outside dynamic, expect Duke to capitalize regardless of how teams choose to defend them.
  3. The concerns around Kansas’ defense are overstated. It’s not that the Jayhawks cannot defend — rather, it’s that their early results are simply a combination of playing two of the country’s best offenses. Strong individual defenders such as Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are known quantities, but team defenses take time to develop and this is especially true for a team that lost two key cogs in Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis. Josh Jackson has the tools to become an exceptional perimeter defender and Udoba Azubuike has a 7’5″ wingspan who and will develop better defensive instincts over time.

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One Burning Question: Will Kansas Really Play Small?

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 4th, 2016

Perry Ellis was one of the most recognizable players in college basketball over the last two seasons. This isn’t news, but anyone who has ever played in a pickup game could empathize with Ellis’s opponents in how they struggled to contain his lethal combination of footwork, soft touch and accuracy. The jokes about Ellis’s age were every bit as much about what he did with the ball in his hands as they were about his status as a college mainstay in the one-and-done era. As the curtains open on the 2016-17 season, Kansas will miss the All-American’s scoring ability, but something people haven’t mentioned nearly as much is that Ellis’s rebounding ability, while not as prolific, will need to be replaced as well. While the Wichita native was no Thomas Robinson, he did average 6.4 rebounds per game over his final three seasons and finished among the top ten in the conference in that category in each of his last two. The degree to which Kansas’ frontcourt helps Landen Lucas replace that production will strongly impact Bill Self’s efforts to deliver his second National Championship to Lawrence.

The paint could be a lonely place for Landen Lucas in 2016-17. (KUSports.com/Nick Krug)

Kansas opens the 2016-17 season without a clear-cut complement to Landen Lucas down low. (KUSports.com/Nick Krug)

As our Chris Stone wrote last month, sophomore Carlton Bragg will get the first crack at filling Ellis’ void. At 6’10”, he still needs to prove that he can get into position to retrieve caroms off the glass and initiate Self’s lethal transition attack. Bragg didn’t do a very good job of that in Tuesday’s exhibition, but we’ll find out very quickly against Duke and Indiana if this was just a matter of adjusting to a new role or if it’s something to be more concerned about. If Bragg gets exposed early, don’t be surprised to see transfer Dwight Coleby get the next shot down low. A transfer from Mississippi, Coleby has good experience and, at 240 pounds, a bigger frame than Bragg. The potential drawback with the redshirt junior, though, is that he has been slow to recover from ACL surgery last year. As a coach who values players who make defensive hustle plays and aren’t shy about mixing things up in the post, Self likely won’t have much patience if he senses that Coleby isn’t completely recovered or that he’s not as comfortable testing his body as much as Self thinks he could.

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Carlton Bragg Prepares For Bigger Role at Kansas

Posted by Chris Stone on October 13th, 2016

Kansas forward Perry Ellis was one of the most recognizable faces in college basketball last season, no doubt partially because the senior All-American resembled a Jayhawk from the Danny Manning era rather than the one-and-done era. Making the most of his last three years in college, Ellis terrorized the Big 12, averaging better than 13 points per game each season as Kansas amassed three more conference titles. By the end of his collegiate career, he had become the focal point of Bill Self’s offensive attack — using 25.5 percent of the team’s possessions — as a triple-threat power forward who could work the low blocks, attack defenders off the dribble, and knock down outside shots. The Jayhawks will now have to find a way to replace Ellis’ production, and that weight is likely to fall heavily on the wide shoulders of sophomore Carlton Bragg.

Carlton Bragg will be asked to carry more of the load for Kansas this season. (Photo Credit: Nick Krug/KUSports)

Carlton Bragg will be asked to carry more of the load for Kansas this season. (Photo Credit: Nick Krug/KUSports)

Bragg, a former five-star recruit from Cleveland, Ohio, averaged just 3.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in 8.9 minutes per game as a freshman (he was Self’s fourth-most played big man). Still, the 20-year old flashed sneaky bits of potential. His per 40 minute numbers (17.0 points and 11.1 rebounds) suggest that his per game numbers should dramatically improve with more time on the court. That should get Kansas fans excited about the role he may play this season, particularly as a pick-and-pop big man. Bragg converted 43.6 percent of his two-point jump shots last season, according to hoop-math, and although he has not yet proven to be a consistent outside shooter — attempting just seven triples last year — there are signs that his range could extend that far. Of note is that he knocked down a pair of threes during the Jayhawks’ Late Night in the Phog event earlier this month. The 6’10” forward should also be able to match Ellis’ productivity in the post. Bragg is 25 pounds heavier than he was a year ago and looked noticeably bigger during the Late Night event. That added strength should prove valuable as he is forced into a higher usage role that will include battling with Big 12 bodies on the block for longer stretches of time.

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Three Big 12 Storylines to Follow this Season

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 11th, 2016

Whether you’ve noticed or not, college basketball is almost here. The league schedules have been released, public practices like Kansas’ Late Night in the Phog and Iowa State’s Hilton Madness have either come and gone or are on the horizon, blurbs are emerging of players losing weight or adding muscle, and coaches are talking about how they want to play faster and take pages from NBA teams’ playbooks. Even though college football, the NFL and baseball’s playoffs tend to dominate the national sports conversation this time of year, it’s nevertheless a good opportunity to start looking at the hoops season ahead (and let’s be honest, any time is a good time to talk hoops around here). We’ll have much, much more to come over the next month as the season draws near, but in the interest of keeping things simple at the opening tip, here are three storylines that will define one of the nation’s top conferences in 2016-17.

Bill Self's Jayhawks are well-positioned for yet another conference title in 2017. (John Rieger/USA TODAY Sports)

Bill Self’s Jayhawks are well-positioned for yet another conference title in 2017. (John Rieger/USA TODAY Sports)

  1. Kansas goes for #13 – The Jayhawks lost one of the Big 12’s elder statesmen in Perry Ellis as well as two other mainstays in Wayne Selden and Jamari Traylor, but Bill Self‘s team is going to be loaded once again. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are back as the two-headed monster in the backcourt, Landen Lucas will hold own the center spot after running away with the job last season and Svi Mykhailiuk returns to provide an X-factor opposing coaches will have to respect, even if he only sees 10-15 minutes per game. Oh, and the potential #1 overall pick in next June’s draft in Josh Jackson will slide easily into Selden’s old spot, bringing versatility, rebounding and that #motor to the wing that Self loves so much. This team isn’t without questions — particularly how effective Carlton Bragg will be as a sophomore — but while there’s usually a token competitor who contrarians pick to upend the Jayhawks in the Big 12, the reality is that there’s no good reason to bet against Kansas matching both Gonzaga and the John Wooden-era UCLA teams with 13 consecutive regular season conference titles. Read the rest of this entry »
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Malik Newman Shores Up Point Guard Spot For Kansas In 2017

Posted by Chris Stone on July 1st, 2016

News dumps are usually saved for Friday nights heading into long holiday weekends, but on Friday morning, Kansas received some good news from the recruiting trail when former Mississippi State guard Malik Newman informed ESPN’s Jeff Goodman he’d be transferring to join the Jayhawks. “I love the basketball culture at Kansas, the way Bill Self holds guys accountable and love the atmosphere,” Newman told ESPN. He will have to sit out next year because of transfer rules, but will be eligible to play for KU in 2017-18. The 6’3″ combo guard was recruited out of high school by Self and his staff before he ultimately chose to stay close to home to play for Ben Howland. In the end, though, it seems that ambiguous trust issues with Howland and a less-than-desirable NBA draft situation caused Newman to believe his best option was to transfer to another school.

Malik Newman is headed to Kansas after spending a year at Mississippi State. (insidemsusports.com).

Malik Newman is headed to Kansas after spending a year at Mississippi State. (insidemsusports.com).

Newman’s commitment to Mississippi State brought significant optimism to the Bulldog program because of his potential as a perimeter scorer. Unfortunately, the 19-year old averaged just 11.3 points per game for the Bulldogs and shot under 40 percent from the field as a freshman. He also struggled to fit in defensively; Newman posted the worst defensive rating (109.7) of any consistent MSU rotation player last season. But even when considering Newman’s relatively uninspiring freshman season, there are still plenty of strands of optimism that Kansas fans can hold onto. For starters, Newman is an immensely talented prospect who was ranked as the 8th best recruit in the country by 247 Sports in 2015. Offensively, his scoring numbers look better when translated to account for pace of play (16.4 points per 40 minutes) and he was an effective outside shooter as a freshman, knocking down 37.9 percent of the eight three-point attempts he attempted per 40 minutes. Newman projects as a work in progress on the defensive end, but he’ll have a year under Self — one of the top defensive coaches in the country — to shore up his skills on that end of the floor before suiting up for the Jayhawks.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Newman’s transfer is that it simply gives Kansas another body to put in a jersey for the 2017-18 season. The Jayhawks figure to experience significant roster turnover following the upcoming season due to graduations and early exits. Both Frank Mason and Landen Lucas are entering their last season of collegiate eligibility while freshman Josh Jackson, sophomore Carlton Bragg, and junior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk are all projected as potential first round picks in next June’s NBA draft. Add in the fact that the 2017 high school recruiting class features very few elite level point guard talents and it’s easy to understand why Newman’s transfer decision could have a significant impact for the Jayhawks down the line.

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Big 12 Morning Five: 05.06.16 Edition

Posted by Brian Goodman on May 6th, 2016

morning5_big12

  1. The coaching carousel is essentially finished for the offseason, but it may not be long before we see movement of a bigger variety with expansion “likely” coming to the Big 12, per ESPN’s Matt Rittenberg. While the potential move would be football-driven — like most realignment shake-ups — it obviously would impact basketball as well, no matter who the Big 12 plucks. There are a handful of reasonable candidates for expansion (well, reasonable as far as realignment goes), but Cincinnati is particularly appealing and realistic for a few reasons, all of which make sense: Most importantly, they would instantly bring (what would be) the second-biggest TV market in the conference. The Bearcats also offer an underrated football program and, as we all know, a consistently strong hoops team. Lower on the list, their inclusion would provide a less taxing travel partner for West Virginia, which is 850 miles away from its closest Big 12 opponent, Iowa State. Cincinnati’s administration has been lobbying the Big 12 for inclusion over the past two years, and while that may not make them automatic, that familiarity certainly can’t hurt from either side. We’ll continue to keep an eye on any developments, but after a few years of rumblings, this summer could be the one where the talk finally leads to action.
  2. While there was never any reason to think that Josh Jackson would back out of his commitment to Kansas, the blue-chipper officially inked with the Jayhawks earlier this week, which means that Bill Self was allowed to talk publicly about him for the first time, and those first comments were pretty interesting. Among Self’s praises for the wing was the remark that “his (Jackson’s) impact on our program next year will be as much as any freshman will have on any college program.” While it’s traditional for coaches to talk up their newcomers, that particular comment sure sets a high bar when you consider how strong and deep the 2016 class is purported to be. Self went on to praise Jackson’s competitive nature, which is also worth pointing out in this space. One of themes of Kansas’ recent teams has been the lack of a vocal leader capable of igniting something within his more stoic teammates, so the degree to which that part of Jackson’s game translates in a much tougher environment will definitely be worth monitoring as the coming season wears on.
  3. Jamie Dixon‘s key challenge at TCU is finding prospects who are willing to spurn better programs in favor of one that has struggled mightily to achieve any semblance of success or build more than a passing following, but his first commitment in Fort Worth signifies that he’s up to the task. On Wednesday, the Horned Frogs secured the commitment of 2016 point guard prospect Jaylen Fisher, a former UNLV commit. The Running Rebels’ coaching shake-up led Fisher to reopen his recruitment, and he stayed loyal to his lead recruiter, former UNLV assistant Ryan Miller, who left Vegas to join Dixon’s staff. Perhaps more importantly, though, Fisher is a consensus top-75 recruit, which makes him TCU’s highest-ranking prospect in ages, crazy as that may sound. While the Horned Frogs will return most of their roster from last season, it’s also a roster that went 12-21, so Fisher will have a chance to make an impact from the get-go. It’s clear that Dixon is wasting no time in adding the level of talent that can change TCU’s fortunes in arguably the nation’s best conference.
  4. While there are still some players to be had through both the 2016 high school class and through transfer, the biggest Big 12 prospect still on the board is Jarrett Allen. The Longhorns are currently counting on rising senior Shaquille Cleare and freshman James Banks to fill the void left by the departures of Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh, which isn’t a great starting point. Cleare scored just 3.6 PPG last season as he struggled with conditioning and foul trouble, and while Banks may pan out eventually, he’s no guarantee to make an immediate impact. A commitment from Allen wouldn’t make Texas a top-ten team, but it would give Shaka Smart a little less to worry about as he looks to replace the Longhorns’ top three scorers, top three rebounders and top two shot blockers.
  5. Staying with the Longhorns, plans are reportedly being made for a December 17 match-up in Houston pitting Texas against Arkansas as part of a neutral court doubleheader. The Longhorns may be in rebuilding mode next year, but the Razorbacks will be a work in progress as well. Mike Anderson’s team is coming off a disappointing 2016 campaign that saw them go 16-16 and finish in a tie for eighth place in the SEC before losing its top freshman, Jimmy Whitt, to transfer. It won’t be the most intriguing match-up on paper regardless of what happens between now and then, but it’s early May; We’ll take whatever we can get.
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Another Spring Surprise: Josh Jackson Commits to Kansas

Posted by Chris Stone on April 10th, 2016

Kansas head coach Bill Self has shown a knack for shoring up his roster with springtime signings of top-five recruits. After losing freshman Ben McLemore to the 2013 NBA Draft, Self secured a commitment from top-ranked recruit Andrew Wiggins that May. While the head coach signed his top two recruits in the fall during the next cycle, it wasn’t until April 2015 that he received a commitment from Cheick Diallo to replace Cliff Alexander. Self has done it again this spring, as the top-ranked recruit in the class according to 247 SportsJosh Jackson, announced via Twitter that he will attend Kansas. Jackson’s commitment solidifies a team that was already the likely favorite to win a 13th straight Big 12 regular season title and will once again be among a handful of favorites to cut down the nets next April.

Josh Jackson will help solidify the wing position for Kansas in 2016-17. (Credit: USA Basketball)

Josh Jackson will help solidify the wing position for Kansas in 2016-17. (Credit: USA Basketball)

Standing at 6’8″ with a 6’10” wingspan and 8’3″ reach, Jackson has the prototypical frame of elite wings at the NBA level. His size is coupled with outstanding athleticism that allows him to move quickly in every direction on the court, facilitated by a relentless intensity. His skill set is still a work in progress — he’s not yet a polished shooter and, according to DraftExpress, he was just a 61 percent free throw shooter during U-19 competition — but Jackson is unmistakably a tremendous talent. He typically plays harder than his competition and has great court vision both in transition and in the half-court. When you combine his work ethic with his physical tools, he has the potential to become a versatile defender for the Jayhawks.

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