A decade has passed and challengers, even schools have come and gone, but there are the Kansas Jayhawks high atop the Big 12 and this season, they’re the odds on favorite to win the league for an astonishing 11th straight year.
You’d think head coach Bill Self could sit back and gloat a little, but that’s not his style. If anything, he’s eager to get to work on coaching up his young team, a feeling that was easily conveyed at Wednesday’s Big 12 Media Day in Kansas City.
“How does anybody reenergize themselves to do their job? I mean, that's our job,” Self said. “The other thing is it's not really work. It's something that we love – to be a part of, what we feel like, is the greatest game on earth. So, I don't think that's very difficult, but it is fun to watch guys get better. We take a lot of pride in it, whether it's a (Andrew) Wiggins or maybe a Brady Morningstar or Tyrel Reed, our job is to get them as close to their ceiling as possible as quickly as we can. That's something that our coaches work very, very hard to do.”
Kansas was very young a year ago, a fact that sometimes was overlooked with the presence of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, two players that ended up going in the top three of last June’s NBA Draft, Wiggins the top overall pick. Still, that youth showed and when Embiid’s season was cut down by nagging injuries, so were the fortunes of the Jayhawks, who ended the season with an upset loss to Stanford in the round of 32.
This year, Kansas is still young in many areas, but also returns key contributors from a year ago such as forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor and guards Wayne Selden, Brannen Greene, Connor Frankamp and Frank Mason. Each player comes back a year older and most importantly, a year better.
Combine that with the arrival of highly touted freshmen such as Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailuik and it’s little surprise that the Jayhawks are being picked to win the league again. However, if you ask Self, it’s not as easy as it looks, as will be the case again this season.
“The appearance is there's going to be a lot of good teams in our league,” Self said. “Last year our league was fabulous. It was arguably the best league in America, and statistically it was the best league in America.”
Iowa State will be among the top challengers to dethrone Kansas this season, after knocking off Kansas and winning the Big 12 Championship a year ago. They also return some key players, led by versatile big man Georges Niang, who’s 25 pounds lighter.
Texas welcomes freshman sensation Myles Turner, who spurned the Jayhawks for the Longhorns and Rick Barnes. Baylor looks to build off their tournament run a year ago, while Kansas State and West Virginia both sport considerable amount of talent and both schools feel this could be a breakout year for them.
Then, you have Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The Sooners will be even better another year into the Lon Kruger era, while the Cowboys may have lost Marcus Smart, but if you ask coach Travis Ford, they could be the best defensively in his tenure.
All of which, leads Self to believe that winning the league is no given and there will be a considerable amount of work to be done along the way. That process will begin with w tough non-conference slate that includes Kentucky, Utah, UNLV, a tournament over Thanksgiving weekend and a highly anticipated matchup with Florida in Allen Fieldhouse, the first Friday of December.
“This year I've seen a lot of the preseason publications, and a lot of them have five teams that are preseason top 25 teams, but to me, that really doesn't mean anything either,” Self said. “A lot depends on how we do nonconference. Let's just face it, we need to play well nonconference because that sets your RPI up for the entire year. But, there's multiple teams that would have a legitimate shot at winning our league this year.”