College Hoops Contender Series: Might Kansas actually be the nation’s best team?

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.

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LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Bill Self (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

KANSAS JAYHAWKS

WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because Josh Jackson will be everything that Andrew Wiggins was without the unrealistic expectations or the pressure of having to carry a team as a freshman.

A quick refresher before we move forward: In a vacuum, Andrew Wiggins was awesome in college. He averaged 17.7 points as the leading scorer and the best perimeter defender on a top five team that probably would have gotten to the Final Four if Joel Embiid’s two-and-a-half year run of injuries hadn’t started that February. The problem for Wiggins was the expectations. He wasn’t the second-coming of Kevin Durant. He didn’t have the same impact as LeBron James would have. In hindsight, it was totally unfair to expect him to be either of those guys, and just because he wasn’t a legend as a freshman there was almost a sense of failure regarding his one year in Lawrence.

The other part of it was that Wiggins wasn’t ready to takeover games or handle the pressure that comes with being the go-to star on one of the most high-profile teams in the country. That’s just not who he was at that point in his basketball development.

Jackson, on the other hand, has that mentality. Think about all the clichés we, the media, love to label the best hoopers in the world with: he’s a killer, he’s a closer, he wants the big shot, he lives to the big moments, he’s clutch. Jackson’s reputation in the high school ranks would fill all of those narratives. He’s got that competitive streak, that alpha-dog mentality that Wiggins needed to develop.

And perhaps the most promising part is that Jackson isn’t going to have to be the leader on this team. Senior point guard Frank Mason is. Junior guard Devonte’ Graham could be as well. Landen Lucas, this team’s front court anchor, is a senior as well. The veterans on Wiggins’ Kansas team? Naadir Tharpe, who was more or less forced out of the program after the season, and … a sophomore year version of Perry Ellis?

In other words, Jackson can be a leader at this level and at this age, but he won’t have to be. Wiggins wasn’t ready for the role but was forced into it.

Jackson also doesn’t have the pressure that comes with the being labeled as the as a prospect on the same level as Durant or LeBron, like Wiggins was. Every time Wiggins stepped on the floor was a referendum on whether or not he was actually a star. That can weigh on a kid, particularly a kid that isn’t exactly predisposed to loving the limelight. And while being the No. 1 player in a class as good as the 2016 recruiting class comes with a significant element of pressure, there is nowhere near the hype for this crop of kids as there was in 2013.

That’s all a long way of saying that I love the makeup of this team on paper.

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Josh Jackson (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

I also love the way that they’re going to come together on the floor.

Let’s start on the defensive end of the floor. Mason and Graham will be one of the best defensive back courts in the country, and Jackson will be an elite wing defender. Throw in Landen Lucas, who was a dominant rebounder and a capable shot-blocker in the minutes he played last year, and the Jayhawks have the pieces to be the nation’s best defensive team. Think about it like this: Kansas was the third-best defensive team in the country last season, according to KenPom, and they get a significant upgrade in Jackson over Wayne Selden at the three.

The offensive end is going to be a bit more of a concern – more on that in a second – but Carlton Bragg should be able to step into that role. He is a decent bet to lead the Jayhawks in scoring, and there are other reasons to be hopeful of the Jayhawks offensively:

  • Mason proved as a sophomore that he can be effective as a focal point offensively.
  • I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Graham just yet.
  • Jackson is a guy I think has the talent to average 16 points.
  • Lineup versatility. Kansas has the size to play big, but it’s their small-ball lineup – with two point guards on the floor with Jackson and, say, Svi Mykhailiuk – that is the most intriguing.

The Jayhawks are not going to be the Golden State Warriors offensively, but given how tough they will be on the defensive end of the floor, they won’t need to be.

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WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The concerns about what Kansas will do offensively are probably legitimate.

By the time he graduated from the Jayhawks, Perry Ellis had turned into a running joke. His hairline combined with the fact that he was a relevant player on Kansas for all four years that he was in college made him one of the most recognizable – and notorious – college basketball players in the country.

But he was also may be the most under-appreciated player in the history of Kansas basketball. The guy was terrific. He averaged 16.9 points as the focal point offensively for Kansas, and his ability to space the floor as a shooter combined with his efficiency on the perimeter and in the post made him so valuable.

Replacing that is not going to be easy.

Carlton Bragg should be able to do a decent job. A former five-star recruit, Bragg was targeted by the Jayhawks because of his ability to operate as a face-up four, because he had a skill-set that would, in theory, allow him to play that role one day. He had flashes as a freshman, but he never did enough to force his way into the Kansas rotation.

So just how much did he develop this offseason?

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) celebrates a teammate's three-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, March 10, 2016. Kansas defeated Kansas State 85-63. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Early reviews out of Lawrence were positive, but early reviews from every college campus are generally positive. The only coaches that tell the press their team is going to be bad are coaches that are looking to limit expectations because their job is on the line or they’re in a new town and are looking to get credit for a big year. So only time will tell.

I don’t think that Bragg, as a sophomore, is going to be what Ellis was as a senior. That’s a big ask, and a nod to just how good Ellis was. He doesn’t have to be either. He just has to be good enough to give the Jayhawk offense some balance and provide the perimeter with a pressure release, because if he’s not, I don’t know if the Kansas guards are good enough to survive playing a four-out offense with Landen Lucas as the big man.

There is one other minor issue I wanted to touch on: Depth. The Jayhawks don’t have a ton of it in their back court. Mason and Graham are the only two point guards on the roster, and both of them are going to be starting. Jackson isn’t quite ready to be a pure two-guard just yet, while Svi and LaGerald Vick are yet unproven.

Mason and Graham averaged 34 minutes apiece in league play last season, and Kansas should be able to survive the 10-12 minutes that Bill Self tries to steal with one or both of them on the bench. My concern is what happens if, say, Mason sprains and ankle or if Graham takes a knee to the thigh. The margin for error there is limited.

PREDICTION: I’m all in on the Jayhawks this season, probably more than any other member of the media.

I think they’re closer to being the best team in the country than they are to being the No. 3 team in the country.

I think the trio of Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson will give Kansas the best perimeter defense in college basketball.

As long as Landen Lucas and whoever is slotted in at the four – be it Carlton Bragg, Svi Mykhailiuk, whoever – can provide enough of a scoring bump to mitigate their defensive question marks, the Jayhawks are primed to storm through the Big 12 and earn Bill Self his second national title.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) celebrates a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, March 5, 2016. Kansas defeated Iowa State 85-78. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)