‘A whole new ballgame’: Kansas basketball eager to defend national title, but Jayhawks know there’s work to be done first

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World

The Kansas players goof around for a photo following their official team photo at Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2022.

Kansas basketball coach Bill Self will be the first to tell you that he likes his 2022-23 roster and that he thinks the Jayhawks have a chance to be pretty good this season.

The word chance is the key part of that phrase, though, and Self said Tuesday at KU’s annual media day that there were a few things that had to happen before he was ready to call this team a contender.

“We’d like to think that we’re in a position to try to defend a championship,” Self said Tuesday. “But I think the biggest thing we’ve got to realize first, before we can even think like that, is we’ve got to be in the game first.”

The game Self referred to was not necessarily the national title game on April 3, 2023 at NRG Stadium in Houston. Although no one around the program is trying to hide the fact that being there absolutely is this team’s goal.

Self’s reference to “in the game,” however, meant getting this group to the point where it’s good enough to compete at a high level and do it consistently.

“I think there’s a lot of things that we have to do to put ourselves in a position to be good enough to have to defend (the 2022 title),” Self said. “And I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”

Like most KU teams, the expectation for this group, which is ranked fifth in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, is to get better as the season goes along.

Self said Tuesday that the current roster has some “shortcomings” that he hoped would improve as the season goes on, and he has said on a number of occasions this offseason that this team will need to shoot the ball well to win games and still needs to find an answer inside.

None of that is much different from what past Kansas teams have faced at this point in the year. What determined how good those past teams were or how many games they won was how well they answered the inevitable preseason questions in November, December and into January and February.

“I do like our team,” Self said. “I do think we have talent. I do think we’re going to get better as we get older. But, you know, you take for granted some experience, and we basically return two guys that played any meaningful minutes off the team that won a championship last year. So, it’s a whole new ballgame.”

While 11 of the 17 players on this year’s roster — 13 scholarship players and four walk-ons — were a part of last season’s championship run, only a few of them played key roles.

Jalen Wilson and Dajuan Harris Jr. both started. And it’s no secret that this is their team now. And, despite playing limited minutes, guard Joe Yesufu and forward KJ Adams both appeared in at least 34 games, as well. The question now is whether that core, along with players like Zach Clemence, Bobby Pettiford, Cam Martin and others, learned enough from watching the 2021-22 team to have it translate to the season ahead.

“I still don’t think that we totally grasp why that team won last year,” Self said Tuesday. “That team won because of intangibles.”

Included among those were: Communicating on the court, competing on each possession like it was game point and taking pride in making your opponent play bad.

“That team didn’t buy into it when they were freshmen,” Self said. “But last year they were totally bought in. We’re going to have to learn how to win by making somebody else play worse. Maybe it’s defense, maybe it’s stealing extra possessions, maybe it’s even if you’re stale offensively you can create some opportunities (for) easier baskets.”

Asked Tuesday what aspect of defending the 2022 national title would be most challenging, Clemence pointed to KU’s youth and relative inexperience.

“It’s going to be hard,” the 6-foot-10 sophomore said on Tuesday. “Last year, we were behind the vets, seniors, which, you saw how that turned out. But it’s definitely going to be a fun year this year.”

Added freshman guard Gradey Dick, who is competing for a spot in the starting lineup: “Every single day it’s just building us because we’re a new team. Our huge end goal (is) to get back to where they were last year and finish another one.”

KU will host Pitt State at 7 p.m. on Nov. 3 in its lone exhibition game of the season. After that, the Jayhawks will host Omaha in the regular season opener on Nov. 7 and North Dakota State on Nov. 10 before heading to Indianapolis on Nov. 15 to take on Duke at the Champions Classic.

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