Freshman Quentin Grimes says the tradition of Kansas basketball is so palpable that his mission has been spelled out before he’s even played a game at Allen Fieldhouse.
“Winning’s all the matters here,” says Grimes, a 6-5 explosive guard slated to be the latest one-and-done lottery pick in the Bill Self era.
But as much pressure as winning a 15th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title provides on a campus with James Naismith’s statue, Grimes says he’s come to Kansas hardwired to do more than just help the program repeat last year’s Final Four appearance.
“The goal is to win a national championship,” Grimes says. “Ultimately, anything less would be a failure here.”
The lofty expectations are shared by the voters in the USA TODAY Sports men's basketball poll who tabbed the Jayhawks as No. 1 team in the preseason poll released Thursday.
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While a team that lost nearly 60% of its scoring and features a heavy batch of newcomers wouldn’t normally translate to national title chatter, Self has talent pouring in from virtually every angle to fill his 2018-19 roster. KU has returning starters Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike to provide a veteran presence.
It has Grimes, fellow five-star freshmen Devon Dotson and David McCormack ushering in the young talent. And then it welcomes eligible transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson (Memphis) and Charlie Moore (California).
Whereas the 2017-18 Jayhawks significantly lacked size and depth, this year’s team will have strength in numbers.
“Talent-wise, we have the best team in the country,” Grimes says. “We have depth at every position.”
Dedric Lawson, who transferred from Memphis after averaging 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds in 2016-17, says he and his brother K.J. – 6-9 and 6-8, respectively – struggled in their NCAA redshirt season knowing they could’ve helped last year’s undersized team that often played with four guards and six scholarship players.
“It was hard to watch,” Lawson says. “But having that season off just made me hungrier for what’s ahead.”
If analysts are being optimistic, KU’s second string might even be capable of getting to the net-cutting stage. But that’s all fool’s gold, according to Self.
“This is the deepest we’ve been in a while,” Self says. “But you can have all the talent and experience in the world and then not play well. Buying into the culture and putting in the work over the course of the season will determine what type of team we’ll have.”
Facilitating the team’s overall chemistry will be the returning veterans — namely Azubuike (13.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Vick (12.1 ppg), who both held off on the NBA to stay in Lawrence.
“We still came up short in the Final Four last year, so we know what it takes but also still want more,” says Vick of KU reaching the sport’s final weekend last March after back-to-back Elite Eight losses the two seasons before it. “We’ve been focusing on the small things and really trying to come together (in the offseason).”
Self thinks that Vick, a 6-5 guard, and Azubuike, a 7-foot- center, can take on more responsibility this season, and expects sophomore guard Marcus Garrett and forward Silvio De Sousa to step into larger roles as well.
De Sousa is currently being held out as the school investigates his eligibility. During a federal trial that concluded this week, Self was accused by an Adidas executive of seeking a $20,000 payment from a consultant of the school company to be paid to De Sousa's guardian.
Even though size will be a commodity for the Jayhawks this year, Self sees it as a luxury more than anything.
“The last two years we really played small with four guards,” Self says. “This year we’re much more versatile, and even though we’re big we can still create a lot of (mismatches) by going with four guards.”
Self says that transfers like the Lawson brothers and Moore, a candidate to replace Big 12 player of the year Devonte’ Graham running the point, give the team a significant boost based on their overall college basketball experience and discipline that they gained through sitting out a season.
“We kind of lucked into having these transfers,” Self says. “Ultimately, they bring more maturity than freshmen, and that’s something we need. All three are very good. And sometimes it’s easier with transfers because they know what it’s like to win, and they know what it’s like to lose at this level. It’s a little more of a realistic approach whereas some freshmen don’t know they don’t know that yet.”
Self and Grimes got a head-start on expectations and a dynamic player-coach relationship in June with Team USA — where Self was the coach and Grimes was named the MVP of the FIBA Americas U-18 Championships.
“I feel like I got a glimpse of what he expects,” Grimes says. “It’s a 110%”
Self, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last fall, says the expectation to win at Kansas never die down — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t see (Duke coach and NCAA wins leader) Mike Krzyzewski resting,” Self says. “Our motivation to get another (national championship) here is as strong as it was 5-10 years ago.”
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