Kansas opens its basketball season at 7 p.m. on Monday night with an exhibition contest against Washburn. The Jayhawks will showcase a revamped roster that features four freshmen and zero scholarship seniors. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are gone. Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr. will step into their place.
There are many questions surrounding No. 5 Kansas as it begins the long slog toward a potential 11th straight Big 12 title and another run in the NCAA Tournament. But as the Jayhawks step on the floor for the first time, here are four crucial questions that will need to be answered this season.
1. Who will handle the primary point guard duties?
For two seasons, it’s been the Jayhawks’ most glaring issue. Last summer, Kansas coach Bill Self expressed a desire to employ a backcourt-by-committee approach in 2014-15. To explain his idea, Self has a familiar saying — “Whoever gets it, brings it.” And it was a model best used during the days of Russell Robinson/Mario Chalmers/Sherron Collins in 2008 and Tyshawn Taylor/Collins during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Of course, part of the reason Self moved away from that approach during the last two seasons was that there just weren’t many great options at point guard. The Jayhawks also had a wealth of talented wings (Ben McLemore, Travis Releford, Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden) who were not great ballhandlers. So for the last two years, more often than not, the Jayhawks had just one true ballhandler on the floor.
Expect that to change this season. Sophomore Frank Mason will likely begin the season as the starting point guard, but freshman Devonte’ Graham has drawn heavy praise during preseason practices.
“Devonte’ is going to be a guy that’s going to challenge for a starting spot,” Self said last week. “I’ve said that all along. I don’t know that Devonte’ is quite ready for that yet, but I think that he could be a guy to challenge for a starting spot.”
No matter who starts, it might be wise to get used to seeing Mason and Graham on the floor together.
2. Speaking of point guard, what does the departure of Conner Frankamp mean for the perimeter rotation?
When Frankamp announced his decision to transfer on Friday, it produced some early-season shock throughout the Kansas program. Frankamp, a Wichita native and lifelong Kansas fan, was a former top recruit, a homegrown player who appeared to be a perfect fit for the in-state blue blood.
But Frankamp desired a “bigger role,” and there was no guarantee that role would materialize at Kansas — especially this season. On Friday, Self said Frankamp was positioned to start Monday’s exhibition game against Washburn. But he faced heavy competition in the backcourt.
Self has traditionally utilized four or five perimeter players in the rotation, and Frankamp appeared to be in a tough battle for minutes. Sophomores Wayne Selden Jr. and Frank Mason appeared locks for the rotation; Devonte’ Graham is developing fast; and we’re not even mentioning three bigger options in Kelly Oubre Jr., Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Brannen Greene.
Now that Frankamp is out of the mix, that still leaves plenty of competition for minutes.
“We’ve got six perimeter guys now,” Self said. “And there’s going to be some times where Kelly or Wayne are going to play the four. We’ve said that all along.
“Some guys are going to play more minutes, but I see them all having an opportunity to play ample minutes — I do.”
Here’s one way to look at the rotation picture: Selden is a lock to start, while Self will need the ballhandling of both Mason and Graham. Oubre, a McDonald’s All-American, figures to be a weapon on the perimeter, and that could leave Mykhailiuk and Greene battling for the remaining minutes as the fifth guard.
This could change, though. And if Self is serious about using Selden and Oubre at the four, that could open minutes for all six guards to be involved.
3. Can the Jayhawks protect the rim?
For the past five seasons, Kansas has had an elite shot-blocker in the starting lineup. Cole Aldrich (2009-10), Jeff Withey (2012-13), and Joel Embiid (2014) were all ranked in the top 25 nationally in block percentage, which measures how many two-point field goal attempts a player blocks while he’s on the floor.
Year after year, the ability to protect the rim bolstered Kansas’ defensive efficiency in the paint. From 2009 to 2013, the Jayhawks ranked in the top 11 nationally in defensive efficiency. And sure enough, the low mark (11th) came in 2011, when the Jayhawks started the Morris twins in the frontcourt. That was the one year in the last five that the Jayhawks lacked a true center on the roster.
Last season, Kansas ranked 31st in defensive efficiency — and that was with Embiid on the roster. With much of the roster back, that’s certainly cause for some mild concern.
So who will protect the rim?
The Jayhawks will start a 6-foot-8 Perry Ellis at power forward, and the second post slot will likely belong to 6-foot-8 freshman Cliff Alexander — even if it takes him a couple of weeks to get there. A few weeks ago, Self was asked if he saw some similarities between this frontcourt unit and the Morris twin (plus Thomas Robinson) outfit in 2011. The answer was no. Self actually compared this group to the 2008 starting frontcourt (power forward Darrell Arthur and undersized senior Darnell Jackson).
Ellis, a pure scorer, is not particularly long, even for a 6-foot-8 forward. Last season, his block percentage (2.2) was worse than Andrew Wiggins’ (3.1). Alexander is athletic enough to block some shots, but he is still quite raw, and Self is rightly concerned about foul trouble.
Here are two players that could help the issue: Junior Jamari Traylor is probably closer to 6 feet 7 than 6 feet 8, but he’s always shown an ability to protect the rim — especially from the weak side. Last year, his block percentage was a respectable 5.5. And if junior transfer Hunter Mickelson can earn minutes, he could be a defensive asset as well. As a freshman at Arkansas in 2012, Mickelson ranked fifth in the country in block percentage (13.5).
Kansas’ leaders in block percentage:
4. Can the Jayhawks be a better three-point shooting team?
More than anything, the answer to this question may decide how effective Kansas is on offense this season. Self believes his team can be an improved outside shooting team, and for the moment, he’s reserving some of his concern for how well the Jayhawks will be able to score at the rim.
“I don’t know how well we can score inside,” Self said at Big 12 media day. “We’ve always been a team that played on angles, but it doesn’t look like that’s coming quite as naturally for this group.”
Even still, the Jayhawks need to stop a recent trend of poor outside shooting. Consider this: From 2005 to 2011, Kansas never shot worse than 36.7 percent from three-point range as a team. Even at their worst, the Jayhawks were still in the top 70 nationally in team three-point shooting.
Then came the last three years. In 2012, the Jayhawks shot 34.5 percent from three, which ranked 149th nationally. And after some steady improvement in 2013 (36.4 percent, thanks to Ben McLemore) the Jayhawks hit just 34.1 percent from three-point range last year. The number ranked 181st nationally, the Jayhawks’ worst mark since 2004.
This must improve. But how?
Perhaps this is an argument for freshman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, a heralded outside shooter, to be in the rotation. Perhaps Brannen Greene or Devonte’ Graham can knock down shots. But if the Jayhawks are going to be efficient from the outside, Self could really use an improved performance from Selden (33 percent last season) and Mason (33 percent).
“I would love for (Wayne) to become more consistent,” Self said. “That would be the thing. He doesn’t have to shoot 40 percent from three, but if he can get that above 35, … that would do wonders to help our team.”