Is Kansas basketball ready to compete for another national title? With a stellar returning group, the Jayhawks are thinking about April.
Riley’s Ranking: 2nd
Imagine taking Kansas basketball fans from 2015, putting them in a time machine, whisking them to 2021, and showing them this:
Their beloved Jayhawks deploying a starting five without a big man! Bill Self — the same coach who obtained unparalleled success with guys like Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey and Perry Ellis — casting post players to the wayside … could it be?
While Self has utilized guard-centric rotations for a few years now, this instance underlines his brilliance in adapting his roster. With COVID sidelining the colossal David McCormack, Self pivoted to a smaller, super-switchable lineup. The Jayhawks bested the Sooners and advanced in the Big 12 Tournament.
And now, with the NIL rules in place, the head coach can fully return to form. It won’t be long before he’s endearing everyone with his potbelly and his “aww shucks” off-court persona. However, with how good his roster is, Self probably wants all the attention on the on-court product.
Just observe the makeup of the Jayhawks’ key returners: Ochai Agbaji, a senior and former four-star recruit; Jalen Wilson, a redshirt sophomore and former fringe-five-star recruit; and the aforementioned McCormack, a senior and former McDonald’s All-American. It’s hard enough to convince one player with that pedigree to stay in college, much less three. And yet, Self has assembled a Kansas basketball roster that runs deep in experienced talent.
The significance of Agbaji’s return cannot be overstated. He’s a two-way beast who flashed offensive assertiveness last season, despite a relatively low usage rate. The 6-5 wing inflicts most of his damage off-ball, frequently beating his man back-door or getting open in the corner. No one in the Big 12 moves better without the rock. This skill makes Agbaji an easy fit in any lineup combination.
The versatile Wilson slots in next to him at the 4, looking to build off of a solid first season. The forward exploded at the start of last year, averaging 15.1 points on .491/.375 splits through ten games. Stardom appeared imminent, but as Wilson became a focal point on scouting reports, his numbers dipped. From the 11th game through the season’s end, he scored 10 points per game on just 36 percent shooting.
Still, after a full season of reps and a normal offseason, Wilson’s shot selection and efficiency will improve. Plus, even on an off night, he always crashes the boards in a fury. His springy athleticism and atomic motor helped Kansas rank top 3 in the conference in offensive and defensive rebounding rates.
McCormack, on the other hand, pulled a reverse-Wilson. He increased his scoring output from 9.6 a contest to 15.4 once the calendar turned. The senior positions himself as an immovable object in the post, and he exemplifies fantastic footwork scoring over both shoulders. He’s especially lethal going left, scoring off of baby hooks and turnaround jumpers:
But his old-school style doesn’t mean that he lacks touch — McCormack masterfully facilitates out of the post.
Junior wing Christian Braun is the fourth returning starter, and he factors in as a prototypical glue guy. You may think he looks like someone who should be rallying the Sigma Chis for the frat league. But he plays tough defense, attacks the glass, and shoots the 3-ball effectively (albeit streakily).
The incumbent starters play with such great chemistry that the challenge of integrating high-usage Arizona State transfer Remy Martin should be eased. I must admit — initially, I was skeptical of the Martin addition. Sure, he led the Pac-12 in points per game last season. But who cares? His team was terrible and his shot selection often mirrored that of someone who was, well, sipping Rémy Martin. In his time in Tucson, the Sun Devils never advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament and never finished higher than 49th on KenPom.
However, after further research, I’ve changed my tune. Martin’s profile bears some resemblance to a transfer from a different ASU: Devonte’ Graham. Per Mr. Pomeroy, they ranked similarly in usage rate, effective field-goal percentage, true shooting percentage, and free throw rate.
Graham had superiority in shooting 3s off the dribble, Martin has superiority at getting to the rim, so that evens the playing field a bit. And with a much improved supporting cast around him, perhaps Martin can match that of Graham’s zany assist rate from 2018.
Even if Martin falters, the Jayhawks possess quality depth behind him. Redshirt sophomore Dajuan Harris is a perfect bench guard with fantastic court vision. He could even perform some spot duty as a starter if injuries strike. Moreover, Drake transfer Joseph Yesufu finished last season on a tear, averaging 23.2 points (on .44/.47/.85 shooting splits) over the Bulldogs’ final nine contests.
And KU’s depth doesn’t end with the guard corps. In the frontcourt, the Jayhawks possess top-100 freshmen Zach Clemence and KJ Adams along with former D-2 All-American Cam Martin. And Mitch Lightfoot still exists! On the wing, they bring in journeyman Jalen Coleman-Lands. He’s a Jalen OldMan-Lands, but at least he’ll ensure that the second unit has some scoring pop.
Defensively, Kansas basketball may struggle some without the point-of-attack pressure from Marcus Garrett. However, they can still switch 1 through 4 on the perimeter, with McCormack protecting the paint and hard-hedging ball screens. To mix things up, Self will unleash Wilson at the 5, switch everything and play aggressive, swarming defense. This formula netted excellent results in the earlier-referenced Oklahoma game — a small sample size but Kansas basketball forced 19 turnovers and held the Sooners under 1 point per possession that day. Regardless, it’s hard to envision them slipping out of the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Few holes can be spotted on this roster, and few critiques can be levied against this coaching staff. Like the red wheelbarrow, so much depends upon Remy Martin. But if he pans out, Self may catch that elusive second ring.
Projected starters: G – Remy Martin (Super-Sr.); G – Christian Braun (Jr.); G – Ochai Agbaji (Sr.); F – Jalen Wilson (R-So.); C – David McCormack (Sr.)
Projected bench: G – Joseph Yesufu (So.); G – Dajuan Harris (R-So.); G/F – Jalen Coleman-Lands (Super-Sr.); F – Zach Clemence (Fr.), F – Cam Martin (Super-Sr.), F – KJ Adams (Fr.)
Strengths: Continuity; experience; ball movement; defense
Weaknesses: Streaky shooting; streaky guard play
Best player: Agbaji
Breakout player: Wilson