LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self was still trying to figure out the makeup of his team the first week of November, roughly about the time the Jayhawks would have had a couple exhibition games under their belts in anticipation of the season.
Unlike last year, when he knew exactly what he had in Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson.
The Jayhawks' standout big man and star point guard are gone, though, their seasons — and college careers — cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic that also kept them from playing an NCAA Tournament in which they'd probably have been the No. 1 overall seed.
In their place are a few veterans, a couple of newcomers and enough unknowns that sixth-ranked Kansas will likely be one of the most intriguing teams in the early part of the season.
“I don't think we're an unbelievably athletic team,” Self said. “I thought initially we could get out and pressure, but I think we can play to our length from a depth standpoint. Could we press some? Zone some? Yeah, I think we could do that, but I have not really thought about how to take advantage of our depth, other than to play hard and force others to defend.”
Depth? That's one thing Self knows he has in abundance. The Jayhawks easily could go 10-deep on any given night, and the benefit of that has never been greater when the specter of positive coronavirus tests looms over the season.
Marcus Garrett returns as arguably the nation's top defender, and the senior guard will likely assume primary ball-handling duties. David McCormack will fill Azubuike's minutes in the paint while fellow junior Ochai Agbaji provides length and athleticism on the perimeter. Junior college sensation Tyon Grant-Foster and blue-chip prospect Bryce Thompson, whose father played for Self at Tulsa, are the front-runners to finish out the starting lineup.
That's just the tip of the talent.
Sophomore guard Christian Braun is one of the Big 12's best sharpshooters, senior Mitch Lightfoot willingly redshirted last season in order to play a bigger role this season, Tristan Enaruna has the length to cause teams fits on the perimeter, Jalen Wilson is back from a freshman season sidelined by a broken ankle and Dajuan Harris is a promising freshman.
“We are missing a lot of key pieces from last year,” Wilson said, “but I think we just have a new team, a little bit younger, one that's hungry to play. Hungry to win. And I think it's going to be a really good year for us.”
WHAT CAN BRAUN DO FOR YOU
The last time Kansas had as dangerous a perimeter shooter as Braun was Svi Mykhailiuk, who parlayed his shot-making ability into an NBA contract. Braun hit on 50% of his 3-pointers last season and could be even more accurate this season.
Kansas reels in big-time recruits just about every season, but Thompson is special on several levels. His father, Rod, was a standout for the Golden Hurricane and his grandfather, Marshall Rogers, played briefly at Kansas in the 1970s. The younger Thompson learned from them the value of hard work — he says he puts up about 7,000 shots any given week.
“Practice is more team-oriented, five-on-five, so outside of practice I make sure I'm getting up my shots,” said Thompson, who picked Kansas over Michigan State, Iowa and just about everybody in the Big 12. “All the shots I get up in a game.”
TBDs ON THE TEAM
Enaruna gained valuable experience last season but lost minutes to Braun down the stretch, and Wilson is a former top-50 recruit whose broken ankle scuttled his season. Both could be crucial pieces alongside Harris, who redshirted last season and is a prototypical point guard, but they will need to establish themselves early.
The blueblood nature of Kansas means it rarely mines the junior college ranks, but Grant-Foster is an exception. The late bloomer was overlooked coming out of nearby Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kansas, but flourisehd at Indian Hills Community College. He averaged 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds last season.
The Jayhawks will be challenged enough in the Big 12, where a double round-robin means two games each against second-ranked Baylor, No. 14 Texas Tech, No. 15 West Virginia and No. 19 Texas. But they added non-conference games vs. No. 1 Gonzaga in the Ft. Myers Tip-Off, No. 10 Kentucky in the Champions Classic, No. 11 Creighton at Allen Fieldhouse in mid-December and No. 12 Tennessee in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge in late January.
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