By Rustin Dodd
There is something fundamentally disorienting about college basketball in September, like Christmas music on the radio before Halloween, or an umbrella-adorned drink served during a blizzard.
The season already drags on for months, spanning two semesters and nearly half the calendar. Most college football teams haven’t even started their conference schedules. Can the season really be starting on Friday? Yes … yes it is.
So here we go.
Bill Self and KU will officially begin practice on Friday, nearly two weeks earlier than usual after the NCAA allowed for an earlier start date this past offseason. The September launch means an earlier Late Night in the Phog — it’s next Friday — and more practice time for a team with six freshman and eight total newcomers. No surprise then, that Self likes the new schedule.
“You don’t have to cram so much stuff in so fast,” Self says. “You can probably take your time and be a better teacher. And you don’t have to wear the guys’ bodies out so much.”
For Kansas, so much of the upcoming season will be defined by how Andrew Wiggins handles — and lives up to — the hype and expectations that surround his one and only season in Lawrence.
But it’s also just September, meaning KU’s season is still mostly defined by the unknown. So as KU begins practice, let’s look at four questions that will be answered over the next six months.
1. Will this be the Jayhawks’ toughest nonconference schedule since Self arrived at Kansas?
Considering the circumstances, the short answer is probably yes. Two years ago, after losing Marcus and Markieff Morris to the NBA Draft, KU played a nonconference slate that included eventual national champ Kentucky, Georgetown, Duke, Ohio State, Davidson and a slumping UCLA. The Jayhawks went 3-3 in those games, parlaying a difficult early stretch into a run to the Final Four in New Orleans.
This year, KU is even more unproven. And the schedule may be even more of a bear. The first test comes against Duke at the Champions Classic in Chicago on Nov. 12, and after traveling to the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in late November, the Jayhawks will face a five-game nonconference stretch that includes games against Colorado, at Florida, New Mexico at the Sprint Center, and Georgetown and San Diego State at home.
2. What kind of impact can transfer forward Tarik Black have?
Wiggins isn’t the only member of KU’s recruiting class who will almost assuredly be one-and-done. Black, a graduate transfer from Memphis, will have just one season at Kansas. But for a team that was looking at having no scholarship seniors, he could end up making just as much impact as some of KU’s more heralded freshman.
On Wednesday, Self said Black may have been the “big steal of any recruiting class in America,” calling him a “potential draft pick.”
In the short-term, Black can serve as a stop-gap for freshman Joel Embiid, a raw big man still finding his way. By the end, Black may be even more.
“I think Tarik will have a great chance to play as much as he wants,” Self says. “He will have a great chance to start. Not very often do you recruit a senior that has already started three years and have him come in and be as well respected and basically be the leader of our big guys already, so I am expecting him to have a big year.”
3. Will any players join the “Travis Releford” redshirt plan?
It’s a little too early to know for sure, but based on the numbers, it’s a reasonable assumption.
On Wednesday, Self talked about playing a nine-man rotation. He’s always kept his rotation around that number, but usually the real number is more like seven or eight. If you’re in the top seven, you’re getting the minutes. This year, Self says, the rotation may actually be closer to nine. (We’ll pause to note that larger rotations seem to a reoccurring KU story line in the preseason; most of the time, the rotation naturally works itself down to eight or so).
“I foresee us talking about (a redshirt) with a couple of guys,” Self says. “The possibilities of who could do such a thing is limited because we have already had some guys transfer or redshirt and that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if one guy redshirted.”
The pool of redshirt candidates isn’t that large: It won’t be Tarik Black or junior Naadir Tharpe, the Jayhawks’ only scholarship upperclassmen, and it won’t be sophomore Perry Ellis or forwards Landen Lucas or Jamari Traylor, both of whom already used redshirt years. Junior forward Hunter Mickelson will sit out this season as a transfer. And while we’re at it, we’ll go ahead and state the obvious that it won’t be freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden or Joel Embiid.
That leaves four scholarship players: sophomore Andrew White III and freshmen guards Frank Mason, Brannen Greene and Conner Frankamp. The competition in the early weeks of practice should be fierce.
4. After losing five starters, including lottery pick Ben McLemore, can Kansas actually expect to be better?
The question, of course, starts with Wiggins … and a six-man freshman class … and the development of Ellis and Tharpe. But earlier this week, Self referenced a number: 33. That’s how many victories KU has averaged over its last seven seasons.
“If this team got to 33 wins,” Self says. “It would be an unbelievable year considering how difficult the schedule is. So I would say if you are talking about the ceiling — if everything fell right come March — I would think that this team’s ceiling would be very high.
“But I don’t think we are anywhere close to being compared to any of the great teams that have come through here yet. Not even close. We have a lot of unanswered questions.”