LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Bill Self walked around T-Mobile Center last week with two broken ribs and a smile on his face.
Not surprising given the wringer he's been through the last seven months.
It began when the coach of top-ranked Kansas had chest pains on the eve of the Big 12 Tournament, landed in the hospital and wound up needing a valve replaced in his heart. The procedure caused him to miss not only the conference tourney but also the entire NCAA Tournament, or at least as long as the Jayhawks were around — which was the second round.
Six months later, the Jayhawks were stripped of their 2018 Final Four appearance and enough wins to fall behind Kentucky as the winningest program in men's college basketball. But the punishments from an independent panel, which wrapped up a years-long case that ensnared several other schools, could have been worse, and for the most part Self was cleared of wrongdoing.
So yes, Self was smiling midway through fall practices despite his latest injury.
“I actually broke two ribs the other day chasing my 5-year-old and my 3-year-old granddaughter around Allen Fieldhouse right before Late Night,” he said. “One of the least athletic moves of my life, and certainly the definition of feeling old.”
The 60-year-old Self was speaking tongue-in-cheek, and the truth is, he has every reason to feel young. The Jayhawks brought back the core of their team — Dajuan Harris Jr., Kevin McCullar and KJ Adams — while landing a top-10 recruiting class and filling their biggest holes with big wins in the transfer portal, none bigger than 7-foot-2 Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson.
All that made them the runaway choice for No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25 and a national championship contender.
“I think the expectations are there that we should be pretty good, and I do think we're fairly talented,” Self said. “I'd just as soon be ranked there than not ranked there. It makes for energy, and it makes for maybe — hopefully — some positive recruiting mail and those sorts of things. But it means absolutely nothing (in that) it will have no bearing on how good a team we have.”
That will be proven on the court, where the Jayhawks face perhaps the toughest schedule in the country.
The grind begins with No. 17 Kentucky at the Champions Classic three games into the season and includes a trip to the loaded Maui Invitational along with dates with defending champion and sixth-ranked UConn, longtime rival Missouri and Indiana.
Oh, and the Big 12 figures to be harder than ever with No. 7 Houston joining fellow newcomers UCF, BYU and Cincinnati.
“The past is motivation, of course,” McCullar said. “You want to win a national championship here at Kansas, which is what you came here to do. And that's what I really want to do: win a national championship.”
Harris is not only the reigning Big 12 defensive player of the year but also led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. McCullar made a somewhat surprising decision to return for another season, while Adams should be able to slide over to his more natural power forward position now that Dickinson has arrived at center.
Dickinson, a preseason All-American, could have gone just about anywhere after averaging more than 18 points and nearly nine rebounds each of the past two seasons. In landing at Kansas, the versatile big man not only found a place where he could be the focal point on a national title contender, but he also filled the biggest hole in the Jayhawks' roster last season.
“For me,” the outspoken and often unfiltered Dickinson said, “as long as we can buy into what coach is saying, as long as I’m playing hard and playing with intensity things should just fall into place.”
The Jayhawks also landed Nick Timberlake from Towson to fill their other big need: 3-point shooting. The sixth-year senior shot over 40% from beyond the arc each of the past two seasons.
The Jayhawks planned to have Texas transfer Arterio Morris off the bench, but he was kicked off the team last month when he was charged with rape. And with Zach Clemence expected to redshirt, the Jayhawks could be in trouble if injuries crop up.
FRESHMEN IN FOCUS
Elmarko Jackson was the highest-rated of the three freshmen that arrived this season, and the 6-foot-3 guard from Connecticut should push Timberlake for a spot in the starting lineup. Jamari McDowell, another 6-3 guard from Texas, could see minutes off the bench. But the big surprise has been late signee Johnny Furphy, a 6-7 swingman from Australia who had a breakout performance at NBA Academy events.
Unlike some years, when the Jayhawks opened with a tough opponent in the Champions Classic, they get North Carolina Central and Manhattan as warm-up acts before facing the Wildcats. They head from there to Maui before returning home to face UConn at Allen Fieldhouse in one of the marquee games of college basketball's nonconference schedule.
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