The college basketball season isn't that far off. So it's time to start looking at the important questions that will shape this season.
Here's a random realization from the past few months: Hoops discussions are different in real life.
This isn't groundbreaking stuff; of course people communicate differently when out of keyboard's reach. Still! The more we've thought about it, the more we've realized that basically every college hoops conversation we had this summer went more or less like this:
Q: So, Team X -- you think they'll be any good?
A: Oh yeah. They'll be good.
Maybe there's some explanation attached, a little back and forth for the sake of politesse. Maybe, if you're speaking with a known die-hard of the team in question, and he or she has a particularly hopeful look on their face, elaboration is the best way to deliver bad news. (You know, losing Player Y is tough, but maybe if some of the young guys come through! -- etc.) Compared to the internet, though -- where the differences between the 25th- and 26th-ranked teams in a midsummer poll must be rigorously considered and precisely outlined -- the default structure of real-world chats, at least in the offseason, is wonderfully binary. A team is good. Or it is not.
If you think about it, this, more than anything else, sums up why the Kansas Jayhawks men's basketball program is so incredible: You could never, ever have this conversation about Kansas.
By any definition, Kansas is always good. The question is never whether, but how.
The same is true in 2016-17, but the question feels even more pressing than usual, full of implications beyond that insane Big 12 title streak. Is this Bill Self's best team of the past five years? Longer? Just how good are these Jayhawks, anyway?
"We're going to be really good next year," Self told fans at the Jayhawks' end-of-season banquet in April. "We're really excited, and our staff would tell you, I haven't been this excited probably going into a summer or a spring than what I am right now, because I know what these guys are capable of."
That bullish early appraisal came on the same night Carlton Bragg announced his decision to return to Lawrence, Kansas, for his sophomore season. It was two days after Josh Jackson, the No. 2 player in the class of 2016, made his commitment official. If there is reason to expect an extra-extra-special Jayhawks group this season, it revolves in large part around those two.
Bragg's talent is obvious, which is how a player who averaged 8.9 minutes per game as a freshman was weighing NBA draft interest in the first place. Even in that limited time, stuck behind four-year senior Perry Ellis, Bragg managed to flash a range of offensive skills, in and out of the post. (According to hoop-math.com, 48.2 percent of Bragg's shots came from mid-range; he made 43.6 percent of them, behind only Ellis and NBA draft pick Cheick Diallo, who attempted just 58 field goals all season.) For months since Bragg's return, Self has noted (in various ways) that his rising sophomore forward needs to "have as big a year as anybody" on the roster. With Ellis gone, it's not hard to understand why.
It's also saying something, because Jackson is on this roster too, and he's only the top overall pick in Chad Ford's early 2017 draft projections. Scouts are unanimously high on the 6-foot-7 shooting guard. Some are, well, higher than others: In April, 247 Sports' Jerry Meyer wrote that Jackson was the "top shooting guard I've ever scouted" in his 14 years on the job and assigned Jackson the highest score (102) in his history of grading players. Rock Chalk Talk held a poll: "Will Josh Jackson have a better year than Andrew Wiggins?" (Wiggins was the top overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft after one season at Kansas.) Seventy-nine percent of readers say yes. Meanwhile Kansas' other two freshmen, Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot, are hardly slouches themselves.
Yet tantalizing newcomers aren't the only reason to think this Kansas team might (somehow) rise above the program's already impossibly high routine. It is, rather, the mix of Jackson and his classmates into a classic Self-ian core of returning players at key positions. Does any team have a backcourt better and more experienced than Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham? A nose-down, no-fuss senior center like Landon Lucas? A 19-year-old junior with as much untapped talent as Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk? Can anyone combine this type of stability with Jackson and Bragg?
Even Self has rarely had the chance. Speaking of Wiggins: The 2013-14 group was a freshmen-dominated one, a hastily assembled, crazy-talented outlier in Self's typical slow-burn developmental cycle. Recent one-and-done freshmen at Kansas (Cliff Alexander, Diallo, even Kelly Oubre, though he had a nice season in the end) have failed to make an immediate, mercurial impact on otherwise veteran-laden teams. The 2016-17 roster might be the best chance Kansas has of getting that mix just right.
And yes: Asking whether this Kansas team is even better than usual is mildly unfair, because it normalizes how good Self's team always is. The Jayhawks are coming off a 33-5 season, a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed, a trip to the Elite Eight (where it fell two buckets short of eventual national champion Villanova) and, oh yeah, their 12th straight Big 12 regular-season title. None of this is normal, and none of it should be taken for granted.
Yet their success is so ingrained that the usual, casual ways we talk about college basketball no longer apply. The only reasonable way to talk about Kansas is to ask wonder whether this year they might be something more -- and to marvel at what that might mean.