Odds to win Title: +950
2017-18 Record: 31-8 (13-5 Big 12)
NCAA Tournament: Lost to Villanova in Final Four
The Kansas Jayhawks last year were a team easy to underestimate, or at least easy until one considers the tremendous influence of head coach Bill Self. But that ignores the fact that the Jayhawks also lacked any top-tier outstanding individual talents, as not a single Kansas player was taken in the first round of the 2018 draft. But outside of that, the team was solid, and it once again made the NCAA Final Four, losing 95-79 to eventual champion Villanova.
Kansas won the Big 12 last year, which was the program’s 14th consecutive conference title. Self has an even tougher task ahead in 2018-19 with the key losses of Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Malik Newman. All averaged 14 points per game or better a year ago, and while this team is probably far more talented, it will have to integrate many promising newcomers to achieve its goals. It returns just two double-figure scorers, but freshman Quentin Grimes is projected to be a lottery pick and should be a huge influence, though almost certainly a “one and done.” The Jayhawks also have a deep roster that Self should be able to pull from to keep the energy levels high for his starters and key rotation players. This is a dangerous team that should be mentioned in the same breath as Kentucky and Duke, but even Vegas wavers in granting that respect, listing Kansas at +950 to win the 2019 NCAA title.
Kansas has played “small ball” the last few years, but that should be changing this season with plenty of frontcourt depth and talent. Udoka Azubuike is a returning starter and Dedric Lawson transferred from Memphis. Azubuike has the build of an NBA center at 7’0” 280 pounds, and last year as a sophomore he averaged 13 points and seven boards per game while shooting a ridiculous 77 percent (!) from the floor. Of course, most of those buckets were easy dunks, but he has worked to develop some post moves that we will likely see a lot more of this season.
Problematically, still, Azubuike shot 41 percent from the free throw line last year, and that has to improve drastically to allow him to be a late-game influence when teams are prone to intentional fouls. Lawson averaged 19 points and nine boards as a sophomore at Memphis in 2016-17, and he is more in the mold of a stretch-4, a player whose perimeter skills will add another dimension to the Jayhawks’ offense.
Beyond this dynamic duo, Kansas also has Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack, both of whom will be rotational players and significant role players in the second unit. McCormack is a McDonald’s All American and at 6’10” 265, he is hardly lacking in size in his own right.
The backcourt is crowded, but plenty talented this year for Kansas. Charlie Moore sat out his transfer season last year, and he averaged 12 points and 3.5 assists as a freshman at Cal. Moore or Devon Dotson should get the start alongside Grimes in the backcourt. Grimes was the MVP for Team USA’s Under-18 squad. Lagerald Vick will also return, and he averaged 12 points per game as a junior. He also has a nice stroke from behind the arc, which is one of the few facets the Jayhawks really struggled in offensively last year.
Also, fully expect Marcus Garrett and K.J. Lawson (Dedric’s twin brother) to see minutes in the rotation. Lawson averaged 12.3 points per game for Memphis last year off the bench. His scoring alone makes him a must-play.
Kansas is probably more talented than Vegas is giving it credit for, but it is hard to place this team ahead of the likes of Duke and Kentucky, at least at this early juncture.
The areas the Jayhawks excel most in is the power of its frontcourt and its overall depth, both areas that should be plenty useful when March rolls around. At +950, the Jayhawks make a great value bet for the 2018 title, notwithstanding that Self still has to help this team develop the major x-factor: overall chemistry.