LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas had a reputation in some corners of college basketball as being a great regular-season team, one that would dominate the Big 12 and win high-profile non-conference games, only to struggle in the postseason.
The Jayhawks squelched all that talk in April.
Leaning on one of the most experienced lineups in the country, Bill Self guided the Jayhawks to the Final Four in New Orleans, where a historic comeback against North Carolina in the championship game allowed them to raise a banner in Allen Fieldhouse for the first time since 2008.
“We talk about this all the time, you know, it’s much easier to have a great team than a great program,” Self said this week, “because it’s just a snippet of time and things could fall just right for one year, and you want to do it where there’s a foundation of consistency that you can, you know, be in the game. And I think we’ve done that. But still, though, in order to validate the first one you have to get a second one.”
Self paused, smiled, then added: “Then maybe to validate a second, you got to get a third one. I don’t know.”
Whether Self needs another on a resume that has already landed him in the Hall of Fame is up for debate. But regardless, that’s exactly what the fifth-ranked Jayhawks are chasing when they open the season in a couple of weeks as defending champs.
“You don’t remember the first-round losses if you win titles,” Self said, “so we needed to do that to validate the success that we’ve had throughout the course of many, many seasons. ... It certainly felt like a burden was lifted after we won.”
The Jayhawks look a whole lot different, and younger, than they did a year ago.
Gone are veterans Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun, both of them first-round NBA draft picks, along with space-eating big man David McCormack, ballhandler Remy Martin and veteran sharpshooter Jalen Coleman-Lands.
In their place are a bunch of youngsters surrounding Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar Jr. and returning starters Dajuan Harris Jr. and Jalen Wilson, making the Jayhawks one of the youngest teams in the country.
As the saying goes at Kansas, though, names and faces may change but the expectations are always the same.
“All I want to do is reach that moment again,” Wilson said of the title game. “Coach talked about how fun it will be, you know, but you don’t really understand until you get there. But once you get there, it’s like, man, it’s the greatest moment of your life. And so I have an opportunity to do it again. Motivates me every single day.”
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A handful of players transferred within the Big 12 this past offseason, but perhaps nobody’s decision made a bigger impact on two programs than McCullar. The defensive dynamo left a big void at Texas Tech by filling one at Kansas.
“This is just the best fit for me, you know? I knew it was time for me (to move on),” he said, “to grow as a player. The next step in my journey was to compete for Coach Self. It was the best decision for me.”
The Jayhawks brought in two forwards and two posts in a four-man recruiting class, and Self said all of them will play. The highest profile belongs to Gradey Dick, a 6-foot-7 shooter, while MJ Rice will remind Kansas fans of Wayne Selden. Six-foot-10 center Ernest Udeh Jr. and 6-8 big man Zuby Ejiofor will provide size in the paint.
HEY, I KNOW YOU
Because of their experience last season, the Jayhawks didn’t need to rely on their talented 2021 recruiting class. But all four are back after a year in the program. Point guard Bobby Pettiford Jr. and forwards Zach Clemence and K.J. Adams Jr. played sparingly last season while Kyle Cuffe Jr. spent the year as a redshirt.
The Jayhawks often played through McCormack in the paint last season, but without an established post presence, there’s a good chance they will be hoisting up a lot of 3s this season. Even forwards such as Dick and Clemence that have size to guard a center almost prefer to shoot from the outside, and they have the touch to do it consistently.
Kansas opens Nov. 7 against Omaha and faces North Dakota State before an early showdown with No. 7 Duke in the Champions Classic. The Jayhawks also have nonconference games against No. 13 Indiana and Seton Hall, their first trip in more than a decade to bitter rival Missouri and a trip to No. 4 Kentucky for the Big 12-SEC Challenge.