Kansas has a chance to do something in 2017-18 that no college basketball program has done in the history of the sport. If the Jayhawks win at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, it will mark the 14th consecutive year that Bill Self's program has done so.
Currently KU's streak of league titles is tied with the one recorded by UCLA from 1967 to 1979. A Big 12 championship in 2017-18 would therefore put Kansas alone on the conference-title mountaintop, so to speak. Can the Jayhawks do it?
If history has taught us anything, it's to never, ever think, utter or write a sentence like "Bill Self will not win the Big 12." The last time that assertion was true was 2004. There's a very strong tendency toward trophies in Lawrence.
That being said, Self will have to do more than just roll the ball out. Losing Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg Jr. (who elected to transfer to Arizona State) represents the biggest loss in minutes that Kansas has suffered since 2013-14.
Of course we know that the very young KU team from three seasons ago did indeed keep the Big 12 streak going, thanks in no small part to the emergence of Perry Ellis as a sophomore and a freshman class that included Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden (not to mention a young Mason). The question now is whether the 2017-18 team can follow in those same green-but-mighty footsteps.
First we have to find out who is on the 2017-18 team -- and who's playing for KU's most potent rivals. Indeed, the decisions made over the next few weeks by players as various as Kansas' Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, uncommitted incoming freshman Trevon Duval and West Virginia's Jevon Carter will go a long way toward determining KU's chances going into next season.
Start with Mykhailiuk. His return would give Self another proven perimeter scorer to slot alongside Devonte' Graham, but the Ukrainian product has reportedly been invited to the NBA draft combine. If he decides to stay in the draft, Kansas will enter next season with Graham as the only starter remaining from the Jayhawks' loss to Oregon in the Elite Eight.
Meanwhile Duval is the No. 5-ranked recruit in the ESPN 100, and he's whittled his final list of schools down to five: Kansas, Duke, Arizona, Baylor and Seton Hall. If the 6-foot-3 point guard were to suit up with KU next season, he would at one stroke give Self a much deeper backcourt rotation.
Lastly, the Jayhawks' chances of winning the Big 12 in 2017-18 are in part contingent on factors beyond their direct control. Most notably, there's a chance West Virginia will enter next season as a laptop favorite to win the league title if Carter returns for his senior season (he's yet to hire an agent and has not been invited to the draft combine.) Put it this way, a Bob Huggins press-oriented team that has Carter, Esa Ahmad, Daxter Miles Jr. and Elijah Macon will look good on paper.
For its part Kansas figures to be built around returnees like Graham, Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike (plus, potentially, Mykhailiuk), as well as Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman, Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe and incoming freshmen Billy Preston and Marcus Garrett.
Allow me to enter an early plea on behalf of Graham for evaluative and perceptual justice. The expectation seems to be growing (even, on occasion, from no less an observer than Self himself) that Graham will do more or less exactly what we saw Mason do last season as a senior. That would be fantastic for Kansas, obviously, but two further qualifications are in order.
First, Graham's already an outstanding guard as is. Second, seasons like Mason's 2016-17 don't come along every year. As a senior he registered staggering post-Ellis increases in both usage and efficiency -- with the result that, quite rightly, he won several national player of the year awards.
Saying that of course this will happen to Graham too (because, hey, he saw Mason do it) could be an example of moving the goalposts a little too nonchalantly. For instance, if Graham simply keeps his (excellent) shooting percentages where they are while taking a significantly higher number of shots, that right there will almost certainly net him richly deserved first-team All-Big 12 honors.
I have little doubt Graham can fill Mason's shoes capably enough even if (gasp) he doesn't win the Wooden Award. A better question may be whether Newman can follow in Graham's 2016-17 footsteps in a supporting role.
Self calls Newman "one of the most talented guards we've had here," which is remarkably high praise. If the sophomore lives up to that billing in 2017-18 it will mean his high-school career was a better indicator than his freshman season at Mississippi State in 2015-16.
After being named a McDonald's All American and ranked as a top-10 recruit nationally, Newman shot a respectable percentage on his 3s for the Bulldogs but struggled mightily inside the arc and actually ended the season coming off the bench. Was that freshman year just a blip? (It's entirely possible. Ask Buddy Hield about his rough freshman campaign sometime.) Can Newman play the level of defense that Self and Jayhawk fans have long been able to take for granted from the likes of Mason and Graham? The answers will be more or less important depending, again, on the decisions made by Mykhailiuk and Duval.
We don't yet know the exact composition of the Jayhawks' roster for 2017-18, but those answers will be forthcoming in the very near future. As you watch these decisions being made in the offseason, keep in mind what's really at stake: Kansas has a shot at doing something historic next season. If Self somehow retains Mykhailiuk and adds Duval, an incredible 14th consecutive league title will become even more likely than it already is.