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Kansas: The under-the-radar national title contender

October 22, 2015 Columns No Comments

Amidst talk of who could be a Final Four and/or national title contender this season, one traditional powerhouse that should be in the mix isn’t getting talked about much, at least not in this vein. There’s an understandable reason, and there’s another reason that could go away and then lead to more talk of them as contenders.

Kansas isn’t being talked about enough. And when you look at their team, you see why they should be a contender, as well as why they are perhaps a bit under the radar, relatively speaking.

This Kansas team will be as deep as any in the country. Bill Self will have a lot of options at his disposal at every position, as well as many lineup combinations he can try. He has two point guards who can start for pretty much anyone in the country in Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham. Off the ball, he has junior Wayne Selden, who has his share of untapped potential, and talented freshman Lagerald Vick. There is Brannen Greene, who shot over 40 percent from deep last season, on the wing.

When you look up front, you see the riches even more. There’s senior Perry Ellis, who is far from flashy but gets things done and will be a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate, and the guy who may as well be his little brother in junior Landen Lucas, who is similarly understated but effective in his play. Jamari Traylor is also there and has been a starter, while Carlton Bragg is among the most talented freshmen in the country and can play a little of both forward spots, though he has often seemed better at power forward. He will be too good to keep on the bench even with the aforementioned veterans, but may find more time on the wing in a big lineup. Hunter Mickelson didn’t play much last season after transferring from Arkansas, but is capable and should play more this season as well. And there’s an intriguing prospect in sophomore Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk from Ukraine in the mix.

That may not be all, though. Kansas also has another highly-touted freshman in Cheick Diallo, who is 6’9″, long and athletic, has a great motor and can rebound. He hasn’t yet been cleared by the NCAA, but if he does, the Jayhawks are deeper and get a big talent boost. He would instantly give them more lineup possibilities up front and can be a difference-maker.

In all, it’s quite a team. That’s 12 players mentioned here who are good enough to get significant minutes and/or roles for this team. With the experience they have, there’s every reason to think this team can go far. Where some might lose track of them is that it’s not a team with multiple clear All-America candidates or NBA lottery-type talents. They hardly lack talent, but the Jayhawks have arguably had significantly more talented teams over the years than this one, with or without Diallo. As such, at first glance, you might not look at this Kansas team and think of it as a national title contender – but you should.

It’s a given that Kansas is favored to win their 12th straight Big 12 title – an incredible accomplishment by itself. There have been a few ties at the top during this run, but that only serves to underscore just how great it has been. We have gotten so used to this being an elite program that the Jayhawks simply don’t get enough credit for their Big 12 prowess, especially considering how good the Big 12 has been. It will be terrific again this year, as they won’t walk through the conference by a long shot – Iowa State, Oklahoma, Baylor and West Virginia should seriously challenge them, while Texas should be interesting with Shaka Smart at the helm for a different look, and Kansas State may have had just the housecleaning they needed after last season.

In fact, there’s an interesting statistic to give you an idea of how good the conference should be this season. Last year, 11 of the 15 players who made the All-Big 12 teams were underclassmen. Only one of those underclassmen – Myles Turner of Texas – doesn’t return this season. That means there will be plenty of proven talent in the conference on teams trying to chase the Jayhawks.

Self has his critics, many of whom point to the Jayhawks losing in the NCAA Tournament earlier than most think they should in some years. To be sure, during his tenure, they have had a couple of disappointments in the Big Dance; they lost to double-digit seeds in the first round in consecutive years in 2005 and 2006, and lost in the second round as a No. 1 seed in 2010. But he also led them to a national championship in 2008, another Final Four in 2012, and has been at the helm for most of this incredible run in the Big 12. His coaching chops need no further establishment at this point.

Not many are talking about Kansas as a national title contender just yet. It’s possible that they are awaiting word on whether or not Diallo will be cleared to play. With or without him, though, the Jayhawks will field a team with a lot of personnel and lineup options, and more than enough talent to get to the final weekend of the season.

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