Editor's note: It's never too early to start looking ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today, the Kansas Jayhawks.
There will be some anxious moments in Lawrence, Kansas, while a precious few of the nation's uncommitted elite players finally announce their intentions for next season. Kansas coach Bill Self has made beefing up the frontcourt a priority, but lately hasn't had much luck in landing his targets. That is, until Cheick Diallo committed Tuesday. Stephen Zimmerman, a 7-footer and Las Vegas native, had an offer from Kansas but decided to stay home at UNLV. Charlotte graduate transfer Mike Thorne, a 6-foot-11 center, received two in-home visits from Self, but opted to sign with Illinois before visiting Kansas.
Power forward Carlton Bragg was the Jayhawks' lone recruit for 2015 until Diallo made his announcement. The 6-foot-9 power forward is ranked seventh in the class by Recruiting Nation. The Jayhawks are still in the mix for wing Jaylen Brown (Recruiting Nation's No. 4-ranked player) and among four schools 7-footer Thon Maker, who reclassified to the class of 2015, is considering, but reports of his desire to enroll for the second semester means Maker is anything but a sure thing.
Self's best teams at Kansas have always had the luxury of a post presence who opens up the perimeter, from Darrell Arthur to the Morris twins to Thomas Robinson. Forward Perry Ellis, who led the team in scoring last season, is worthy of being the first option. But as Wichita State showed in eliminating Kansas in the NCAA tournament, he needed some help. Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas are not gifted scorers. Cliff Alexander, who declared for the NBA draft, never developed into the dominant force many believed he would before being shut down by an NCAA investigation. The addition of Bragg and Diallo was sorely needed to help the Jayhawks improve after shooting just 46 percent from 2-point range last season, which was the lowest during Self’s tenure. Diallo also brings an added dimension of shot-blocking skills that should immediately help Kansas’ interior defense.
The Jayhawks look to make it 12 straight Big 12 conference titles next season and will again be considered among the favorites. But the challenge could be even greater than the 2014-15 season with experienced teams returning in the Iowa State Cyclones and Oklahoma Sooners. Newly hired Texas Longhorns coach Shaka Smart fired an opening salvo aimed at the Jayhawks when asked at his initial news conference if his style would work in the Big 12. Smart remarked, "It translated pretty well a few years ago in San Antonio," which was a reference to the VCU Rams' upset of No. 1 seed Kansas in the NCAA tournament en route to the Final Four.
What the immediate future holds: Kansas gets an early jump on the rest of the college basketball world after it was selected to represent the U.S. in the World University Games in South Korea July 3-14. In preparation for those games, the Jayhawks will play two exhibition games against Team Canada on June 23 and 26 in Kansas City. The Jayhawks will be without rising junior guard Brannen Greene, who had hip surgery earlier this month. But the competition itself, not to mention the practice leading up to the games, should give Self an early indication of what he'll be working with come November.
The backcourt, particularly with point guards Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham both returning, should be the strength of the team after being one of the most frustrating areas the past few seasons. Graham, when healthy, is more of a pure point guard the program has lacked. Mason is a scoring point who learned more of the nuances in balancing playmaking and hunting his own shot.
The Jayhawks could be defined by players realizing their potential. Guard Wayne Selden Jr. decided to return for his junior season. He was third on the team in scoring (9.4 PPG) and second with 95 assists. When he plays aggressively on offense, Kansas is a tough team to stop. Svi Mykhailiuk, a 6-foot-8 sophomore from the Ukraine, was the youngest player on the roster last season, having turned 17 just before arriving on campus. He started six games during nonconference play, but eventually faded to the bench during league play as a defensive liability. Now that Mykhailiuk has gotten acclimated to the level of play expected, he could be poised for a breakout sophomore campaign.
Mykhailiuk and Greene's youth showed in their tendency to limit themselves to being perimeter shooters. Greene took 73 percent of his shot attempts from behind the arc, followed by Mykhailiuk attempting 61 percent of his field goals from deep. Kelly Oubre's decision to turn pro might open up more playing time for both of them.
No matter what players the Jayhawks add or don't add in the late signing period, next season their best players will all be upperclassmen. And nothing can calm nerves in Lawrence more than that.
Editor's note: This post was updated to reflect the news that Cheick Diallo committed to Kansas.