Five things we learned from the 2016-17 KU basketball season
Now that enough time has passed — for most — between the rough ending to another amazing season of Kansas basketball and today, it’s time to take a quick look back at what we learned about the KU program during the 2016-17 season.
These things we already knew: Kansas is king of the Big 12 Conference; the Jayhawks are perennial national title contenders; Bill Self is one heck of a basketball coach.
So no surprises there.
But what about the things that were a little surprising, or at least proved to be realities that we don’t necessarily see every season at Kansas?
There were a few of those, too.
Here’s a look:
1. Bill Self is even better than you thought
Anyone who has followed Kansas basketball closely over the years — and even many who haven’t — knows what Bill Self basketball looks like. Inside-out, playing through big men, preferably with a big time shot blocker and a bunch of long and athletic guards who are fast and interchangeable. With a roster that lacked in some of those areas, Self adjusted to the four-guard lineup (more on that in the coming days as we’ll take one last look back at how that whole thing came to be) and watched the Jayhawks play a fast and exciting brand of basketball that made them a nightmare to match-up with throughout most of the season. Forget the X’s and O’s aspect of it, the bottom line about the 2016-17 season was that it proved further to what end Self will go to ensure his team is successful. There's a reason the guy's a Hall of Famer now. Actually, there are a bunch of reasons. Doing what he did with his roster and rotation in 2016-17 certainly qualifies as one of them.
2. We saw the true value of program guys
Imagine for a second where last year’s team would’ve been without Frank Mason III and Landen Lucas. Sure, maybe some other player or two would’ve come along and filled their spots, but would they have done it so well? Doubtful. And one of the biggest reasons for Mason and Lucas’ success was their experience. The two had been through so much during their four and five years in Lawrence and seen just about everything that they operated with a certain sense of calm. That experience also produced a great deal of confidence in both players, who often stood tallest against the toughest challenges. One-and-done and early-entry prospects are exciting and entertaining and, like it or not, probably will be the future of the sport for a long time. But that fact makes players like Mason and Lucas and seasons like the ones they had all the more special when they happen.
3. One-and-dones are worth it
Speaking of one-and-dones, KU fans have been left wanting more from recent freshmen for quite some time now but they finally got their payoff. Josh Jackson was sensational in just about every aspect of the game throughout the 2016-17 season and got better each month. Imagine if it were called May Madness instead of March Madness. Jackson would be a monster by now. And he probably is anyway. That’s why he’ll be a Top 3 pick in the NBA Draft next month and also why you take guys like him, year after year, class after class. I’m not sure the idea of loading up with one-and-dones like they do at Kentucky would ever work at Kansas. It doesn’t fit Self, it doesn’t fit the fan base and, as mentioned above, there’s legitimate value in program guys who carry a little veteran moxie with them. But taking one or two every year is absolutely worth considering and Jackson is the reason why. Even if you have to put four or five years of effort into recruiting them to get that nine months of time with them in your program, it can be worth it. They don’t all turn out like Cliff Alexander, Cheick Diallo and Josh Selby. It may be a while before KU has another freshman like Jackson. Heck, it may never happen again. The guy was a special player. But you can bet that Self and company will keep going after ’em and now you’ve seen up-close-and-personal why it’s worth it.
4. That Big 12 title streak really is pretty cool
It’s celebrated and stressed over every year by the fans and I haven’t met one yet who is tired of adding to their T-Shirt collection at the end of another Big 12 season. But because it has been so long since someone other than Kansas won the Big 12, it does get taken for granted a little bit. Don’t get me wrong, each February or March, when another title is clinched, the celebration is cool. But this one, which tied the UCLA dynasty at 13 in a row, carried with it a little more of that special feeling. And understandably so. Year 10 was cool because it was double-digits. Years 1-5 were cool because the streak was just forming. And by Years 11 and 12 the whole thing became a feat we all just sort of marveled over. But those middle years, Year 7, Year 9, those sort of had that, “Oh, cool, they did it again” vibe to them and a little less euphoria and pride. Not this one. Tying UCLA was big. Passing the Bruins next season, should KU be fortunate enough to do so will be even bigger. And I really thought that fact was palpable throughout the 2016-17 Big 12 race.
5. The game is changing
Remember that four-guard lineup talk from No. 1? Back to that for a second. The game of basketball is changing and it’s starting to filter down to the college game in a big way. Small ball, quick guards, excellent shooters. All are becoming more and more important in the modern game. Look no further than the upcoming NBA Draft for proof, as five of the Top 10 projected picks are 6-foot-6 or smaller and two more, Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum, stand 6-8 and have a more perimeter-oriented flavor to their game. That means seven of the Top 10 picks in this year’s draft could very well be guys who are the poster boys for the modern game. Heck, even Florida State big man Jonathan Isaac, who stands 6-11, likes to play and looks incredibly comfortable on the perimeter. These things tend to go in cycles, so I’m not saying the game has changed forever. But thanks to the recent success enjoyed by the Golden State Warriors, teams at all levels have started to tweak how they play, looking to take advantage of tempo, quickness and the 3-point shot more than ever. Kansas is one of them and it worked tremendously well for the Jayhawks in 2016-17. The question now is where do things go from here?