There is no more reliable constant in college basketball than Kansas. The Jayhawks, as you might have heard, have won 13 consecutive Big 12 titles.
Pollsters and computer models alike are quite rightly impressed by what Bill Self has done in Lawrence, and the expectations for this season's KU team are correspondingly high. The Jayhawks are ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP poll on the eve of their game against No. 5 Kentucky in the Champions Classic (9 p.m. ET on ESPN) at the United Center in Chicago.
Before we get that far, though, let's consider what we think we know about this current Kansas team and its chances for extending what is surely basketball's most remarkable current streak.
Kansas can (or should) hear the Big 12's footsteps
On paper, Self has more than enough factual material to convince his players that they won't be able to just coast to another title. Two facts in particular stand out:
• The per-possession scoring margin the Jayhawks recorded in conference play last season (plus-0.08) was the smallest such figure during KU's 13-year run (and, indeed, was actually eclipsed in 2016-17 by West Virginia at plus-0.10).
• Last season, Kansas, of course, had the luxury of putting the national player of the year on the court in the form of Frank Mason III. Now, Mason is gone, and so, too, are fellow starters Josh Jackson and Landen Lucas.
If restating these points of information suffices for Self to get his players' attention, then the coach can get down to work on title No. 14. For, even with last season's relatively modest scoring margin and even with Mason's absence, it turns out there's a lot to like about these 2017-18 Jayhawks.
Expect 3s again this season
Kansas has played three exhibition games thus far, and in those contests, the Jayhawks have connected on just 32 percent of their 3s. Should Self be concerned? Some positive visualization exercises for Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick might be in order (the duo is shooting a combined 19 percent from beyond the arc), but, otherwise, it's far too soon to hit that panic button.
Any rotation that includes Mykhailiuk, Vick, Devonte' Graham and Malik Newman is well positioned to deliver perimeter points. Self has started all four guys in each of KU's exhibition games, and the offense has been highly perimeter-oriented in its shot selection.
This heightened emphasis on 3s probably won't last once Kansas starts playing quality opponents, but it is true that the Jayhawks launched more attempts from beyond the arc last season than ever before under Self. Expect much the same look in 2017-18.
Self might have referred to 3s as "fool's gold" in the past, and, who knows, he might do so again this season. But in addition to listening to what a coach says, we should also watch what he does -- and Self is giving a green light.
Volume will matter again in 2017-18
Kansas was merely an average 2-point shooting team in Big 12 play last season and was far inferior to Texas on that metric. Yet the Jayhawks were second only to Oklahoma State in points scored per possession thanks to great 3-point shooting and to KU's ability to generate a high number of shot attempts.
An underrated trait of Jackson's, for example, was that he attempted 90 shots from beyond the arc as a freshman yet still got his hands dirty in the paint often enough to be a significant factor on the offensive glass. A key question for Self, then, is whether he can match the offensive rebounding that was supplied by Jackson and (especially) Lucas with second chances now provided by Udoka Azubuike, Billy Preston and/or various other Jayhawks.
In the exhibition season, Azubuike has pulled down 13 percent of his teammates' misses during his minutes. That number was recorded against wildly varying opponents (Missouri, Pittsburg State and Fort Hays State), but, just for reference, that's more or less what we saw from Lucas over a full season in 2016-17. Given that KU tends to record more or less the same turnover rate in Big 12 play season after season (about 18 percent), the Jayhawks' ability to get offensive rebounds could be an important factor in determining this offense's success.
This defense might again be very good but not great
Azubuike is -- to use a highly technical basketball term -- huge: 7 feet and 280 pounds. Certainly, he should be able to provide some stout rim defense for Self, but he is just one guy. Thus far in the exhibition season, the sophomore has played 63 percent of the available minutes, a figure that again tracks what we saw from his predecessor, Lucas, in 2016-17.
Self made his name in Lawrence with big front lines that held opponents to 2-point percentages in the low 40s. Those days are gone, and last season KU's defense was only a hair better than the Big 12 average for points allowed per possession. Still, the key term there is "better." When combined with an excellent offense, the Jayhawks have shown that a defense that's just good enough is, well, good enough.
In theory, a team that just lost three starters, including a national player of the year, should be at risk of taking a step back. Yet here are the Jayhawks once again, beloved of pollsters, revered by computer rating systems and favored to win an incredible 14th consecutive Big 12 title. If Self gets some 3s, a few offensive boards and just enough D, the pollsters and laptops will look smart for having believed in KU yet again.