It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Kansas Jayhawks
The Big 12 will regroup in 2016-17 after 70 percent of its members earned invitations to the NCAA tournament last season.
Oklahoma must move forward without Buddy Hield. Isaiah Taylor left Austin to turn pro. Taurean Prince could secure a first-round slot in the NBA draft a few months after the Dallas Cowboys picked Rico Gathers in the sixth round of the NFL draft. No Georges Niang for Iowa State. Goodbye to Jaysean Paige and Devin Williams at West Virginia. New coaches for Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
It’s bumpy everywhere in the Big 12 but Lawrence, Kan., where the tears dry fast. Mourning never lingers there. They regroup and rebuild. Every year. That’s why Kansas won its 12th consecutive Big 12 championship last year. And that’s why the Jayhawks will enter 2016-17 as the favorite – again – to win the Big 12.
The departures of Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr. would send most programs into a forced restart, a process that might demand a three- or four-year grooming period to allow their young talent to mature. Not Kansas.
No Selden? Fine. Kansas replaced the talented wing with Josh Jackson, a five-star super freshman with a higher ceiling. He’ll join Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason III to form a backcourt that will rival the imposing crews at Arizona, Kentucky, Villanova and Duke. Udoka Azubuike, a five-star freshman built like a “Game of Thrones” character, looks the part of a dominant collegiate big man. But the Cheick Diallo/Cliff Alexander experiences taught us to wait before we praise.
The Jayhawks boast enough depth inside, however, to grant Azubuike time to grow. Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg return. And Ole Miss transfer Dwight Coleby, a 6-foot-9 big man, will regain his eligibility after sitting out last season. Plus, top-100 power forward Mitch Lightfoot will boost this bulldozing, boards-snatching-by-committee approach, too.
Then again, Azubuike could enter his freshman season and decide he’s not here to play games on Day 1 of a breathtaking debut.
Either way, Bill Self will enter 2016-17 with a strong backcourt, a freshman with All-America talent and an impressive frontcourt. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, a 6-foot-8 guard NBA scouts love, will also return for his junior season. And we didn’t mention Diallo, who has not hired an agent yet but is projected by some to be a first-round pick; he’s probably gone.
Still, Kansas should win the Big 12 for a 13th consecutive season, a streak that would tie the all-time mark achieved by UCLA. The Bruins did it with Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Sidney Wicks, Marques Johnson, Bill Walton and other great college players. The one-and-done era destabilized programs that enjoyed continuity in previous decades. It seems more difficult to control a conference post-2006 (the year the NBA implemented its new age limit for prospects), with the constant roster turnover and adjustments, compared with the 1960s and 1970s when UCLA established the record.
The Jayhawks should match that all-time mark. That matters.
But do KU fans need more?
In 2012, Kansas lost to Kentucky in the national title game. That was the program’s last Final Four appearance. If the Jayhawks fail to reach the Final Four for the fifth season in a row in 2017, their fans might get anxious. It’s the same sentiment that preoccupied North Carolina supporters during the Tar Heels’ seven-year absence from the Final Four after the 2009 national championship.
The national pundits won’t help. We can talk about conference dominance forever, but the masses view the NCAA tournament as the game’s universal barometer.
The Jayhawks lost to Villanova, the eventual champ, in the Elite Eight in March. No shame in that. That run helped KU fans forget about the first-weekend struggles of the previous two seasons.
Kansas will enter 2016-17 with a roster capable of launching a run to Phoenix. But an early exit in the NCAA tournament would diminish the vibe created by a 13th consecutive Big 12 title.
Kansas fans shouldn’t worry about the latter. Everything about this roster suggests conference superiority and a lengthy stay in the NCAA tournament.
While the rest of the league rebuilds, Kansas will maintain its post. And who knows what March will bring. Kansas doesn’t care. This new lineup can handle the burden.