Key Returners: Devon Dotson, Udoka Azubuike (injury), Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett, David McCormack, Silvio De Sousa (suspension)
Key Losses: Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes (transfer), Lagerald Vick
Key Newcomers: Isaiah Moss (Iowa), Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna, Christian Braun, Issac McBride
Outlook: What was your favorite part of 2004? Was it Shrek 2 making almost a billion dollars worldwide? Was it Mark Zuckerberg launching the Facebook rocketship from his Harvard dorm room en route to being the sixth-wealthiest person in the world? Or maybe it was how truly apologetic Ruben Studdard was (please click that if only to see his hat)? Well, for many in Big 12 basketball land, 2004 marked the end of a distant, blissful era when Kansas didn’t lord over the league like the Aegon Targaryen of heartland hoops. The Jayhawks won or tied for 14 straight league titles, only to see that reign of fiery terror finally come to an end last year at the hands of Texas Tech and Kansas State. For most programs it was still a solid year – 26 wins, third in the Big 12, Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament – but for a Jayhawk program accustomed to dominance, it was a letdown, including earning the team’s worst NCAA seed since 2006 (oh, the humiliation of a 4 seed!).
Bill Self responded by amassing a roster that’s being nearly unanimously ranked in the Top 5, featuring a star inside (Udoka Azubuike) and out (Devon Dotson). That duo alone puts Kansas in the country’s upper echelon, and the complementary pieces are intriguing around them. Additionally, it never seemed like Lagerald Vick truly fit into the fabric of last year’s team or became the veteran leader the team needed, and having a more stable locker room without his off-the-court question marks may be a blessing.
Given the makeup of this year’s roster and some telling quotes from Coach Self, Kansas will return to the days of two-big lineups, formerly a Self staple, but an approach that’s been abandoned recently by necessity. Silvio De Sousa likely starts at the four alongside Azubuike, with David McCormack on hand to provide depth, and that trio makes KU’s front line as physically intimidating as any in the country (*nods to West Virginia, Gonzaga, and UNC*). A lot of the offense will run through Azubuike on the block, where he’s a manchild incapable of being single-guarded by almost anyone in college basketball. It often doesn’t really matter how many defenders you throw at him, because his footwork is terrific for a giant, allowing him to carve out space even against double- and triple-teams:
He’s a unique force given that combination of size and nimble feet on the block, and when he was healthy last year, he turned Kansas into one of the best teams in the entire country:
To clarify: those numbers only include the eight games Azubuike was available (not counting Wofford, when he got hurt early), so it’s not distorted by extraneous data. When they had him on the court, the Jayhawks were dominant with him owning the paint – it’s that simple. De Sousa and McCormack are tireless rebounders, but neither brings the same kind of utter supremacy that Big Doke does.
Of course, when Self does have an inkling to go smaller, a couple late additions bolstered his ability to do just that. Iowa grad transfer Isaiah Moss and top 50 freshman Jalen Wilson both came available after committing elsewhere, and Self pounced, offering guaranteed minutes for a national title contender. Neither is a high volume three-point shooter, but both are efficient when left open, and Wilson (or human glove Marcus Garrett) can guard opposing fours in a pinch. Spacing the floor even more with shooting would make Azubuike nearly unguardable inside, and the offense could explode if he shows more passing against double- and triple-teams.
Dotson is the catalyst on the perimeter, a shifty point guard who played some of his best ball in the postseason (Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments). He wasn’t the same kind of one-man wrecking crew with the ball in his hands that Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason were, but with another year of development under Self, big things are coming for the former 5-star recruit. He often didn’t have enough shooting threats around him to whom he could distribute, thus allowing defenses to collapse, but the additions of Moss and Wilson plus more experience for Ochai Agbaji should alleviate that somewhat. Freshmen guards Issac McBride and Christian Braun (shooter extraordinaire) could be potential offensive sparks, as well, but given the skill and depth of the returning rotation, the two rookies will have to fight tooth and nail amongst each other for whatever minutes come available. Self has played his starting PG heavy minutes recently, but McBride will likely back up Dotson with the news that DaJuan Harris will redshirt.
The defensive end could be a massive strength for the Jayhawks, as well. Self’s best defenses were when he played two bigs and dominated the paint, and although Azubuike is not mobile enough to switch on the perimeter, de Sousa and McCormack might be. Obviously, Big Doke will eat souls inside at his massive stature, so Self will just need to be smart about his pick-and-roll coverages when opponents try to target the gargantuan center. Mitch Lightfoot is another option, but that Athletic article linked above hinted that he might redshirt, which is probably smart given the abundance of depth on this team. On the outside, Garrett may be the best perimeter defender in the Big 12, and he can shut down almost any type of offensive threat save for true post players. Agbaji, Moss, and Wilson are switchable with versatility and size, and Dotson brings a solid presence guarding the ball. I’d expect the Jayhawks to be in the top 15 nationally on D, at a minimum.
Bottom Line: The hiatus away from the top of the Big 12 standings likely only lasts a year in Lawrence, as Bill Self has the firepower up and down the roster to start a new streak in 2020. The question marks that do exist, like the switch back to two bigs and whether there’s enough wing scoring to really threaten opponents, are mitigated by Azubuike’s titanic frame and Dotson’s likely leap, and the star power around the conference is depleted (try putting together a Big 12 all-conference list – it’s tough). The Jayhawks are a real threat for the national title, and if Wilson and Moss pan out, they’ll push Michigan St. and Duke to be the favorite to ultimately cut down the nets in Atlanta.