Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Kansas isn’t obsessed with winning a 14th straight Big 12 title, but they are on pace to anyway
By ADAM ZAGORIA
If the regular season ended today, Kansas would own its 14th straight Big 12 regular-season title and might well be in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
As we sit here on Feb. 1 — exactly half way through the Big 12 campaign — the Jayhawks sit atop the conference standings at 7-2, one game ahead of both Oklahoma and Texas Tech. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi also has the Jayhawks installed as a No. 1 seed, alongside Villanova, Virginia and Purdue.
All this despite the fact that this Kansas team is a perimeter-oriented club with only one real low-post player in Udoka Azubuike. Four of their top five scorers — Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman — are perimeter guys
“We’re not surprised, we do think that we have a good team,” Kansas assistant Norm Roberts said this week on The 4 Quarters Podcast. “We do lack depth inside and size. But we had to deal with some of that last year. Even though Josh [Jackson] was 6-foot-8, he was a guard and slim and those things. So I think our guys learned from that and we’ve been able to adapt to the strategies we’ve had to use this year, and that’s playing fast and playing with four guards and one big.”
Kansas is 3-1 in Big 12 road games, which has facilitated their first-place position.
“Well, it’s huge, it’s huge because every venue is a tough venue to play in,” Roberts said. “Great crowds. Every time we go to someone’s home court, it’s sold out so we know we’re going to get the best of the best that night in their play and also from their crowd so you have to be ready for that every single night.”
Roberts says the Jayhawks aren’t obsessed with winning a 14th Big 12 title. But if they end up doing it, it might just be one of Bill Self’s finer accomplishments, considering the lack of front court depth on this team and the threats from Trae Young-led Oklahoma, Keenan Evans-led Texas Tech, Jevon Carter-led West Virginia and Mohamed Bamba-inspired Texas.
“Coach [Bill Self] does an unbelievable job of this,” Roberts said of the streak. “We don’t talk about that until January with our team. We don’t say one thing about we have to keep the streak alive. We take one game at a time. Right now we’re in the league schedule so the focus is trying to win the Big 12 championship, so that’s our focus.”
Graham has made his expected contributions with 17.5 points, 7.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game, but others have stepped up as well.
Newman, the transfer from Mississippi State who was once heralded as a potential one-and-done, has been key to Kansas of late. He’s scored in double-figures in his five of his last eight games, including dropping a season-high 27 on Iowa State, 24 on Baylor and 20 in a win at Oklahoma.
“He’s been very, very important to us,” Roberts said. “We looked at him as being one of the guys that may even lead us in scoring this year. He had some up and downs, but he’s gotten a lot better over his last three or four games. He’s been really good. He’s made big shots and he’s gotten better at the defensive end. He’s gotten better at attacking the basket and not just relying on jump shots. We have to get guys getting to the paint and driving the ball. It can’t just be Devonte’ getting there.”
Mykhailiuk, meantime, has scored 24, 24 and 22 in his last three games.
“He has had an unbelievable year,” Roberts said. “He’s so aggressive, he’s so confident in his shot….And that’s the way we want him to feel, that it’s a good shot when it leaves his hand, that he needs to be confident. He and Devonte’ have such a great synergy with each other, they know how to find each other. People think he’s just a jump shooter, and he is one of the best shooters in the country, but he’s done a great job of attacking the basket.”
Kansas could well end up being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament again this year, if they win the Big 12 and keep going at this rate.
Looking ahead, there will be turnover after this year, with Graham and Mykhailiuk graduating and several others possibly opting to test the NBA Draft waters.
“We need probably to improve our shooting,” Roberts said. “You’re definitely going to lose Devonte’ Graham, you’re definitely going to lose Svi. You have a possibility of losing Lagerald Vick to the draft, you have a possibility of losing Malik Newman to the draft, so we could lose a ton of our shooting and scoring. So we’ve got to stay involved with some guys that can help us on the perimeter.”
Kansas also has 6-9 Dedric and 6-8 KJ Lawson and 5-11 guard Charlie Moore sitting out. They already have signed guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes, along with big man David McCormack. And they remain in the mix for Romeo Langford, who is down to Kansas, Indiana and Vanderbilt.
“We have some guys sitting out that are going to be very good. We have a great recruiting class coming in. We feel really great about our guys. We saw Devon Dotson [Tuesday] night, he’s terrific . He’s going to be a terrific young guard for us next year. Grimes can really score the ball . And big Dave McCormack is going to give us good inside depth and can really score there. So we feel good about those guys and we already have [Silvio] De Sousa on campus. So we think our future’s bright. We think our future is one that we’re going to have a deep team next year. We’re going to have enough size and perimeter scoring that we should have a chance to be pretty good.”
So a potential 15th straight Big 12 title isn’t out of the picture, either.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.