RCW: Midseason Review (Men's Basketball)
Midway through the 2017-18 men’s basketball season, Kansas finds itself in familiar situations from seasons past. Under the direction of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach Bill Self, the Jayhawks are atop the Big 12 standings, holding a one-game lead in what is the toughest conference in the nation. Once again, KU ranks high in the national polls (currently No. 7/7) and its ratings percentage index (RPI) and strength of schedule are among the elite in the nation. Individually, Kansas uses a core of seven players, with a pair of seniors guards leading the way.
Preseason ranked No. 4 by Associated Press and No. 3 in the USA TODAY Coaches’ polls, Kansas established itself as a top-10 team in the second game of the season with a 65-61 win against then-No. 7 Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Nov. 15 in Chicago. KU would open the year 7-0, which also included a 76-60 win versus traditional power Syracuse in the Hoophall Miami Invitational on Dec. 2. With the 7-0 record, which included a 73-72 win at former conference foe Nebraska on Dec. 16, Kansas climbed to No. 2 in both national polls.
Following losses to Washington and Arizona State and a 1-1 start to the Big 12 season, Kansas slipped just outside the top 10 in the rankings. KU then went on a five-game winning streak in league play, moving the Jayhawks back up into the top 10. The victory streak also put KU atop the conference race as it defends its NCAA-record-tying 13 straight conference regular-season titles, a run that started in 2004-05. It also placed KU high in the RPI, where it currently stands seventh nationally, and in strength of schedule, currently second in NCAA Division I.
Kansas mainly uses a four-guard lineup with seniors Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk leading the way. The Jayhawks lead the Big 12 in 3-point field goal percentage at 40.9 percent and rank among the top three in the conference in scoring (third at 83.1), scoring margin (third at +13.4, 17th nationally), field goal percentage (second at 49.7, 16th nationally), assists (second at 17.7, 12th nationally), assist-to-turnover ratio (second at 1.5, 13th nationally) and 3-point field goals made per game (second at 10.6, 16th nationally).
An All-America candidate, Graham is on almost every national player of the year watch list. He is the only player in NCAA Division I averaging 17.0-plus points, 7.0-plus assists, 1.8-plus steals and fewer than 3.0 turnovers per game. At 17.2 points per game, Graham has ranked in the top five of the Big 12 scorers most the season. He leads the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7) and is second in assists (7.5) and fifth in steals (1.8). Mykhailiuk leads the Big 12 in 3-point field goal percentage at 47.9 percent and he is second in the league with 3.6 3-point field goals made per game. He is scoring 17.0 points per contest, which is fifth in the conference.
Sophomore Udoka Azubuike is also proving to be a force down low for Kansas. The center leads the nation in field goal percentage at 76.4 percent and is vying to become only the third Jayhawk ever to lead the NCAA in a stat. He is averaging 13.5 points per game and leads KU with a 7.4 rebound average. Junior guard Lagerald Vick and redshirt-sophomore guard Malik Newman are regular starters who have also played big roles in 2017-18. Vick averages 13.3 points per game and is second on the team with 5.4 rebounds per contest. Newman has been named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week once this season already (Jan. 22) and scores 12.0 points per game. KU is one of only two schools in NCAA Division I to have five players averaging 12.0 points or more per game with the other being William & Mary.
Freshman guard Marcus Garrett (3.9 points, 4.0 rebounds) earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Week honors early in the season (Nov. 13) and sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot (3.8 points, 3.2 rebounds) have played key roles off the bench for KU this season. Lightfoot is leads KU with 36 blocked shots and leads KU with 10 charges drawn this season.
Kansas men’s basketball has seen this type of success before under Self’s guidance. The Jayhawks are once again among the nation’s elite in the polls, RPI and strength of schedule. KU is atop the Big 12 race in what experts say is the toughest conference in the nation. KU looks to extend a conference regular-season streak that would be unmatched, should the Jayhawks win the 2018 league title.