I don’t know if I’m ready for college basketball to begin.
People who have known me for many, many years should re-read that statement. Because, once upon a time, my sports life was a big countdown to the next KU game, to the next recruiting deadline, to the day when practice could begin in the fall, and so on. Other sports were secondary to the endless calendar of college hoops.
That’s changed. The Royals have a lot to do with that. The declining quality of college basketball in recent years has something to do with it. The Hot Take era has something to do with it, too, as it is harder to enjoy your team’s success vs. deal with the downsides of losing. I’ll admit I have probably let the bad emotions that go with KU losses eclipse the good emotions when they win.
I think all that has brought about some healthy changes in my fandom. Where once all activity ground to a halt in our house when KU played – and hell no we weren’t doing anything social – I’ve learned to lean on the DVR more. Last year I remember going to M’s volleyball games, a Colts game, and a big social event while KU was playing important games. That shit would not have flown just a few years ago.
Still, as this season begins, I feel like I need to put more emphasis on enjoying the season. Find a way to control my anxiousness before games. Re-learn how to revel in those two-plus hours over 35-odd times a year, when KU is on the court. We’ll see how that turns out.
I offer up that lengthy preface because I think it helps to explain my view of KU’s prospects this season: I can’t figure them out. KU should be very good this year. Maybe even very, very good. Most people consider them the Big 12 favorites. They should have a low number next to their name when the NCAA tournament brackets come out in March. They have a deep, balanced, experienced roster. They are building on their success at the World University Games last summer.
Still, something feels off to me. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m not sure Perry Ellis is the guy who can go out and score 10 points in the last four minutes of a tight game. I’m not sure if it’s because this seems like a team full of B+ players but no superstar talents among them. I’m not sure if it’s because they haven’t played good defense in three years, and with the new (old) emphasis on eliminating contact, that will hamper them further.
I think it’s mostly because of the hangovers from the past two Marches. It’s not just that they lost in the round of 32 both years. It’s how listless they looked each time. How Stanford and Wichita State out-hustled and out-worked and out-toughed them. Are those scars enough to push Ellis, Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, etc. through beyond the first weekend this year? Or is that just who they are and we’ll see the same thing this year?
Oh, and then there’s the Cheick Diallo saga. I was convinced he would have been cleared to play by now. But based on the leaks last week, when it was revealed that he turned over 2000 pages of high school homework and then the NCAA began requesting coursework from his middle school back in Mali, it seemed like the goalposts were being moved by the crack staff in downtown Indy and he was destined to never be cleared. I suppose it’s easier to flip through Diallo’s files than confront the clear scandal at North Carolina.
The thing I keep telling myself is Diallo is just a piece. An important one, yes, as he would give the Jayhawks an athletic rim protector. But he’s not going to be Joel Embiid and turn into a one-in-a-lifetime player over the course of six weeks if he gets cleared. If he’s on the court and can get acclimated to the college game and not fall into the pitfalls that Cliff Alexander fell into last year, he can be the difference between KU being an Elite 8 team and a Final Four team. But the big thing about that statement is this team still has Elite 8 and beyond potential without him.
Mason and Devonté Graham give Bill Self his best backcourt since Sherron Collins and Tyshawn Taylor played together. Frank is a beast who will not let his team lose. And Devonte’, if he can stay healthy, is as good of a defensive guard as KU has had since Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson left. Plus he has an underrated offensive game which is just going to get better.
Selden will be solid wherever he plays, either at the 2 or 3. Brannen Greene is as good a shooter as there is in the country, again if he can stay healthy. I think Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will likely not live up to his hype this year, mostly because it’s been a bit unfair. But he’s going to show a lot more flashes, and get a lot more playing time, than he did last year.
Ellis will follow the arc of his career. His numbers will get a little better overall. He’ll have a few more huge nights. But he still won’t feel like a superstar. Until you see that he’s in the high teens for scoring, near 10 boards a game, and KU’s go-to guy when they have to have a basket.
I think Carlton Bragg is going to be really, really good before he leaves KU. Like Svi, he’ll show flashes this year. And at times he’ll look completely lost. But by March he’s going to be a trusted part of the rotation.
Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, and Hunter Mickelson are all flawed in some way. But they’re each also better than what every team on KU’s schedule can put in their front court in some way. There will be nights when each of them looks terrible and can’t stay on the court. And nights where each of them does something huge to help KU win a game.
Diallo is just the cherry on top of all of that. I’ve gone back-and-forth several times in setting myself up for him to play vs. not be eligible at all this year. With the regular season underway, I’ve swung back to him never getting on the court. I hope that’s wrong. But I also think there’s plenty to like about this year’s roster without him playing a minute for them.
I was surprised by how many points KU put up in their opener Friday night. Sure, it was Northern Colorado, but the Jayhawks haven’t been known for their explosive offense in recent years. And they showed no signs of that in their exhibition games. That performance makes me think this team is capable of answering all my questions and concerns about them.
Tonight they really get things going against a very solid Michigan State team. Last year these teams played in November and it was about as ugly a game as two elite programs could play against each other. With both teams at less than full strength, with the new defensive rules, and with it being so early in the season, I don’t expect this to be a very pretty game either. But I’m both interested and excited to see the ‘Hawks take the court.
Rock Chalk, bitches.
- Which he absolutely can. But given his career, you wonder if he can do that EVERY night if needed, though. ↩
- Speaking of the UNC mess, I think it’s pretty obvious the NCAA has no interest in doing a thing about it. And after the NCAA president said yesterday that it wasn’t the organization’s job to validate courses on college campuses, it’s clear they’re giving themselves the wiggle room to avoid doing anything. ↩