For Kansas coach Bill Self, it’s a strange equation. His program lost five starters off a team that last season finished 31-6 and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, one year later, he enters the most anticipated Kansas season since he arrived in Lawrence in 2003.
This is a phenomenon that Self has often called Kansas Math — the idea that expectations will always be great in Lawrence, no matter what. But last May, on the day Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall recruit in the country, announced his decision to attend KU, Kansas Math took on a whole new meaning.
In early October, on the day Self and KU ushered in the latest season at “Late Night in the Phog,” more than 20,000 fans lined up outside Allen Fieldhouse to catch a first glimpse of Wiggins and a six-man recruiting class.
“On a national scene, we’ve been ranked higher (in the) preseason a lot of times than we are this year,” Self says. “But it seems like to me, there is more hype around this team in large part because of our recruiting class, the unknown, and of course getting Andrew.”
During the Jayhawks’ first month of practice, Self has spoken plenty about the “unknown” — and that makes predictions and projections difficult. Kansas could potentially have its most talented roster since it cut down the nets at the 2008 Final Four, but nobody is quite sure how it will all work out. Put another way: Will the young talent transform from potential to production?
It starts with Wiggins, the 6-foot-8 swingman who will likely be the focal point of the Jayhawks’ offense. That doesn’t mean he’ll be KU’s leading scorer; Self believes that distinction could fall on sophomore forward and Heights graduate Perry Ellis. But in Wiggins, Self has a player with world-class athleticism, guard skills and forward size. Self would like to get Wiggins touches in the post — something he has never done for a guard — and unleash his athleticism in transition.
In addition to Wiggins and Ellis, who made tremendous strides during the latter half of his freshman season, KU will likely start a mix of veterans and precocious young talent. Freshman combo guard Wayne Selden, a McDonald’s All-American, could be the most physically mature freshman Self has recruited to KU, while junior guard Naadir Tharpe will slide into a leadership role at point guard. Senior forward Tarik Black, a graduate transfer from Memphis, will give KU some needed experience in the post.
But there are other unknowns: Self calls freshman center Joel Embiid, a 7-footer with nimble feet, one of the most talented young big men he’s coached, while freshmen guards Conner Frankamp, a North graduate, and Frank Mason could battle for minutes at the end of the guard rotation.
For Kansas and Self, the idea is to be in “the game” — to compete for a 10th straight Big 12 title, a Final Four appearance and, if everything lines up, another NCAA title. But for now, that’s all in the future. The calendar still says fall, and it’s hard to know what Kansas can be come March.
“All we’ve really done is basically tell our guys there’s been some pretty good players here before you that have proven their ability and how they can impact a program,” Self says, “and none of you guys have even made a basket yet.”