By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
Editor’s note: John Fanta is counting down his top 15 college basketball teams leading up to the start of the 2022-23 season. Checking in at No. 9 is Kansas.
All is right at Allen Fieldhouse. Bill Self and his Jayhawks fly high into a new season as the reigning national champions for the first time since 2008, and while this year’s team has a different look, there’s little doubt that Kansas should be a national contender once again.
How Kansas won the national title
Mark Titus and Tate Frazier break down the Kansas Jayhawks’ run to the championship.
The list of departures is notable, though. Gone are Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack, Christian Braun, Remy Martin, Mitch Lightfoot and Jalen Coleman-Lands. But while the Jayhawks lost six of their top eight shot-takers from last season’s title team, there are several options to fill the void.
The strength of this year’s edition of the Jayhawks is versatility. That begins and ends with the return of redshirt junior Jalen Wilson, who tested the NBA Draft waters but is running it back in Lawrence. The 6-foot-8 forward will look to build on his 11.1 points and 7.4 boards per game last season, not to mention a Final Four showing that included a combined 26 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists in the two victories in New Orleans.
The other impact returning player is point guard Dajuan Harris, who is back for his junior season after averaging 5.4 points and 4.2 assists per game last year while serving as a terrific defender for Kansas.
Meanwhile, in the transfer portal, the Jayhawks only made one acquisition, but it was one of the most significant ones in the entire offseason. Kansas reeled in an intraconference transfer, Texas Tech’s Kevin McCullar Jr., a 6-foot-6 wing who is a strong defender and a versatile weapon offensively.
The biggest question for Kansas: How much will the No. 4 recruiting class in the country provide? Self will rely on top-tier newcomers Gradey Dick, MJ Rice and Ernest Udeh Jr. to give the Jayhawks some production. They will certainly get their fair share of opportunities.
The other key factor will be how much some other returning players do with more minutes.
Kansas certainly has plenty of “new” on the roster, and the Big 12 is expected to be a bear with Baylor, Texas and TCU all featured in our preseason Top 15, but Self has enough returning, plus a recruiting class stacked with talent, to be a national contender yet again.
Here’s a deeper dive on the Jayhawks.
Who’s back for the Jayhawks?
We’ve discussed some of the main returnees above with Wilson and Harris, but Kansas also brings back a couple of pieces that did not play a major role last season but could be asked to do so now. Zach Clemence, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, will certainly have a chance to earn significant minutes at center after he was behind McCormack in a learning capacity last season.
Two other returning players to watch for are Bobby Pettiford Jr. and Joseph Yesufu. Pettiford missed the majority of last season with an abdominal injury and could find a spot in the rotation. The former four-star recruit has great quickness and could provide a scoring spark, though injury concerns are still there.
Yesufu is the one to keep a closer eye on because he’s had a big offseason. Transferring in from Drake last season, Yesufu only averaged 2.1 points per game in his junior campaign in a very limited role. He will be expected to make a leap, and all signs point to him doing just that.
Going back to Wilson, the biggest key for him after testing the NBA Draft waters is his perimeter game. He only shot 26% from deep last season but is lethal at attacking the rim and making plays with his length. If his jumper comes along, there’s nothing Wilson can’t do at the college level.
Who’s new on the roster?
The Jayhawks are more than familiar with McCullar Jr., who can play any position from one to four and will be vital for Kansas defensively. Like Wilson, the key for the Texas Tech transfer is his perimeter game. Last season, he shot just 31% from downtown. McCullar showed just how dangerous he could be on the big stage in the NCAA Tournament last season when he combined for 31 points against Notre Dame and Duke.
In terms of the freshmen, Dick headlines the class as the nation’s 20th-ranked recruit according to 247 Sports. The Wichita native joins Andrew Wiggins (2013) as the only Gatorade High School Players of the Year to head to Kansas. At 6-foot-8, Dick will likely step in as the Jayhawks’ starting wing and should be their biggest perimeter threat. As a senior at Sunrise Christian Academy, Dick averaged 18 points per game and shot 47% from 3-point range.
Elsewhere on the perimeter, Rice is a four-star recruit who could get some minutes off the bench in Year 1. The 6-foot-5 wing averaged over 20 PPG as a senior at Prolific Prep in California and enters the program with the potential to provide a scoring burst.
The third McDonald’s All-American to enter the Jayhawks program is 6-foot-11 center Udeh, who may be the most interesting freshman to watch. Kansas has a clear hole at the five, and Udeh has a great opportunity to step right in and make an impact, but the transition can be difficult for frontcourt freshmen. Beyond Udeh, four-star freshman Zuby Eljofor is another potential option. Both Udeh and Eljofor are mobile bigs filled with athleticism.
The big questions for the Jayhawks …
As we have explained above, replacing McCormack won’t be done by just one player. Other than the options that we’ve gone through, another player worth monitoring is 6-foot-9 super-senior Cam Martin, a former Division II All-American at Missouri Southern State who redshirted last season.
Self could certainly also go small with how wing-heavy this roster is, but when Kansas has been at its best, it typically has been with strong play at the five-slot. There’s no doubt that Self will find an answer at the position, but it’s a bit of a mystery at the moment.
The other big key for Kansas will be perimeter shooting. Having Harris back to run the point is major, but it will be interesting to see what the Jayhawks do in terms of shot distribution. This team loses six of the nine players who appeared in the national title game last year. There are plenty of shots on the table.
The schedule outlook …
The reigning national champions will meet Jon Scheyer and a new-look Duke team in Indianapolis at the Champions Classic on Nov. 15. That will surely be one of the season’s most anticipated non-conference games. Eight days later, it’s a trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis to meet N.C. State, either Dayton or Wisconsin, then potentially Tennessee.
A loaded out-of-league slate continues on Dec. 1 when Shaheen Holloway and Seton Hall come to Allen Fieldhouse as part of the Big 12/Big East Battle, before a rivalry meeting with Missouri on Dec. 10.
And all of that’s not even counting meetings with Baylor, Texas, TCU, Texas Tech and the rest of a stacked Big 12. The Jayhawks’ regular-season finale comes March 4 with a trip to Austin to meet the Longhorns. That one … will have some buzz as Self and Chris Beard meet ahead of championship week.
Top 15 countdown:
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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