The Kansas Jayhawks have won 12 Big 12 regular season titles in a row, which is perhaps the most impressive statistic going in college basketball.
In a sport full of roster turnover, Bill Self has been a constant. And his Jayhawks have constantly dominated the Big 12 over the past decade and change. Kansas doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, but you’d have to think that one of these years a conference foe will rise up and dethrone the Jayhawks.Then again, we’re fresh off a year in which Naismith winner Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners made the Final Four, and even they couldn’t top Kansas. If a Final Four squad with the national player of the year couldn’t edge the Jayhawks, who can?
Let’s take a look at what KU has returning, and whether or not any Big 12 school has the firepower to end such an extraordinary streak.
Kansas’ starting five was a strength last season, and it looks even better in 2016-17. Ellis is a significant loss, but Bragg was excellent in short bursts last season, and it will be interesting to see what he can do with more burn.
Bragg only averaged 8.9 minutes per game in 2015-16, but he was very productive during that time; he averaged 17 points and 11.1 rebounds per 40 minutes. The sophomore certainly doesn’t have the offensive polish Ellis had, but he’s a better athlete, and the Jayhawks could have used more explosiveness in their frontcourt last season. Ellis will be missed, but Bragg isn’t much of a downgrade.
The other change is at the small forward spot, where heralded freshman Jackson takes over for Selden. After a tough start in Lawrence, Selden found his footing as a junior; the multi-skilled wing averaged 13.8 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting last year.
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But by all accounts, Jackson has the potential to be an All-American this season. At 6-foot-7, he’s capable of playing four positions (including point guard, which gives Self three floor generals in his starting lineup). Ellis served as the Jayhawks’ de facto alpha dog last season, which was fine against lesser opponents. But he struggled against length and athleticism throughout his career.
Time will tell how Jackson fares as a crunch-time scorer, but he has the tools in his arsenal to be successful in that regard. Selden had a remarkable junior season, but Jackson figures to be the better player.
Meanwhile, Lucas, Graham and Mason all return, and each should improve in 2016-17. The Jayhawks found their stride in conference play once Lucas entered the starting lineup last season, and Mason and Graham form one of the best backcourts in the country. Meanwhile, depth is rarely an issue for Kansas — Svi Mykhailiuk could start for 95 percent of the teams in the country, and he’ll come off the bench for the Jayhawks.
We don’t know if Kansas will be better than it was last season. But taking those factors into account, there are more reasons for optimism going into this season than there were going into last. And we saw how that turned out for the rest of the Big 12.
With that said, this is not a done deal. Let’s quickly run through some of Kansas’ biggest threats:
West Virginia adds a refreshing twist to the Big 12. Kansas is as equipped as anyone to handle Bob Huggins’ aggressive defensive scheme given its experienced guards, but the Mountaineers should challenge for the crown this season. Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, Jr. and Tarik Phillip is an excellent guard trio, but the WVU frontcourt is raw. They’ll need someone to step up and replace Devin Williams’ production.
The Cyclones lose Georges Niang and Jameel McKay, and while Monte Morris should emerge as a No. 1 scorer, Steve Prohm’s squad is likely to take a step back in 2016-17. Iowa State’s frontcourt was its strength last season, and now it’s a major question mark.
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Like Iowa State, Oklahoma lost two program icons in Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins. Jordan Woodard returns, and the Sooners have an excellent coach to go along with young, hungry athletes, but it’s hard to see them edging out Kansas this season.
The Longhorns are a dark horse Big 12 title contender. Shaka Smart’s team is loaded with young talent; Tevin Mack, Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach are three second-year players that could lead Texas to glory this season. This program is starting to build an identity, but is it far enough along to challenge the Jayhawks? Time will tell.
Again, nothing is guaranteed. But here’s what we know: Kansas should be as good, if not better, than it was last season. And five of its top Big 12 competitors (West Virginia, Iowa State, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma) lost their best player from last season.
In the end, the Jayhawks are judged by how far they go in the NCAA tournament. But 12 conference titles in a row is almost unfathomable, and chances are, they’re about to make it 13.