- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Udoka Azubuike, LaGerald Vick
Key Losses: Frank Mason, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas
Key Newcomers: Billy Preston, Malik Newman (Mississippi St.), Sam Cunliffe (Arizona St.), Marcus Garrett
Outlook: Writing a Kansas basketball preview means we are required by law to mention the program’s current Big 12 regular season title streak, which sits at lucky number 13. The last time Kansas did not at least share the conference regular season title was all the way back in 2003-04, Bill Self’s first year on the job. During Self’s 14-year tenure, the Jayhawks have never earned less than a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament and have earned a 1-seed 7 times. I could continue spouting these gaudy stats about KU, but 1) that’s not why you’re here and 2) my Mizzou fan-hood just won’t allow that to happen.
After another stellar regular season, Kansas, led by Naismith Player of the Year Frank Mason, saw its National Title hopes dashed in the Elite Eight against an unconscious Oregon Duck team. That team was talented (see also 4th overall pick Josh Jackson), but didn’t have quite the requisite depth to make it all the way to the Championship. While Self usually isn’t a huge proponent of playing an extended rotation, KU’s lack of frontcourt ferocity was an obvious weakness in their otherwise juggernaut of a squad. That changes a bit this season with the return of Udoka Azubuike and addition of Billy Preston, the 17th ranked prospect in the country. Add in the return of a few grizzled vets in the backcourt plus a couple high-scoring transfers, and it’s not hard to see why most expect Kansas to once again be a bona fide title contender.
Frank Mason left KU as one of the best Jayhawks to ever put on a uniform, which is high praise *Nic Cage voice* considering the mounds of talent that has passed through Lawrence. Replacing him won’t be an easy task, but Devonte’ Graham has every opportunity to develop into an All-American this season and become Kansas’s alpha dog. Graham played nearly every minute of every game last season and put up one of the best offensive ratings in the country on relatively high usage. With Mason gone, Graham will take on a more primary ball handler role, one that will give him the chance to create more off the bounce and become the Jayhawks’ go-to playmaker. Graham can probably give Kansas 80-90% of what Mason gave them last season, but it should be noted how the Jayhawks fared when Graham was alone on the floor without Mason (per Hoop Lens):
This is an extremely small sample size, but the results still don’t warrant many good feelings. KU was significantly worse on offense when Graham was on the floor without Mason, a trend that Jayhawk fans hope is simply a statistical aberration.
Thankfully, Graham won’t be the only scoring threat in the backcourt this season. Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman looks to be a candidate to lead the Jayhawks in scoring this year, while senior Svi Mykhailiuk will provide KU with his excellent three-point shooting. If KU’s exhibition games in Italy are any indication, Newman appears plenty comfortable in being the primary shot-taker this season. The redshirt sophomore came out of high school ranked #10 in his class and is known for his ability to put the ball in the basket. Graham is a very unselfish player, so “surrendering” the primary scoring role to Newman would not be out of his wheelhouse – the two should be a fun tandem to watch this year.
Mykhailiuk will compete with fellow returner LaGerald Vick for the starting small forward spot. Mykhailiuk, who is somehow still only 20 years old, will stretch the floor nicely for Graham and Newman to work their magic. Last season, Mykhailiuk shot 39.8% from downtown, a number that rises if you isolate his corner three-point makes (21/45; 46.7%), all of which came off assists. For all his shooting ability, Mykhailiuk was KU’s worst defender by a comfortable margin on an advanced stat metric (and his NBA Draft combine stats didn’t light an athletic fire), which is where LaGerald Vick comes in. Now, Vick isn’t an elite defender either, but he is an upgrade over Mykhailiuk and actually better offensively on a points per possession basis. Off the court issues cast a shadow over how valuable Vick truly was on the basketball court last season. His athleticism and scoring versatility make him an integral piece of the Jayhawk rotation.
Udoka Azubuike is the Kansas player everyone should keep an eye on this season. Azubuike was only able to play in 11 games last year before a wrist injury derailed his freshman campaign, but he made an impression during his short time on the floor. First of all, the dude is a physical specimen – like a literal 7-foot, 280-pound monster – my jaw still hasn’t closed from watching his rebound domination against Duke back in November 2016. In that game, Azubuike grabbed 12 rebounds in 15 minutes and totally overwhelmed a thin Duke frontcourt. If he can stay out of foul trouble (a real concern considering his 8.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes), he should have an enormous impact on the inside.
Since the aforementioned talent apparently wasn’t enough, Self went out on the recruiting path and grabbed himself two shiny new freshmen that should have immediate impacts. Preston oozes with talent – his passing ability is elite for his position and he has the ability to score from just about anywhere on the floor. The one knock on him appears to be his “motor” a.k.a. sometimes he takes plays off. This behavior likely gets ironed out real quick under Self’s tutelage. The other freshman, Marcus Garrett, impressed everyone over in Italy. Garrett, the #62 ranked recruit in the country, is a high-flying combo guard with excellent size and a smooth shooting stroke. He should be able to contribute in several areas – he pulled down 12 rebounds in KU’s second Italian exhibition contest.
After non-conference play concludes, Self will get himself yet another contributor to insert into the rotation. Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe is set to join the fold during second semester. Cunliffe started all 10 games for the Sun Devils prior to transferring, proving he was comfortable scoring from the outside as well as attacking the basket. It’s worth checking out some of his videos from his high school days – he is an extraordinary athlete.
Bottom Line: Kansas once again has the talent to challenge for a National Championship and is the heavy, heavy favorite to repeat (for the 14th time) as Big 12 regular season champs. All eyes will be on Devonte’ Graham as he ascends to the undisputed leader role, while Malik Newman and Udoka Azubuike will present their case to become household names.