Although Late Night and the season opener remain in the distance, the start of another school year marks the unofficial beginning of a new journey for the Kansas men’s basketball program.
And what a journey it’s been already.
Just four months ago, as Bill Self and his coaching staff sat in the unusual spot of potentially having as many as five or six scholarships still to hand out, the KU fan base panicked.
No Top 40 prospects in the class of 2019, top targets choosing other programs, and uncertainty surrounding the futures of a few key Jayhawks were enough to sound the alarms.
But those sounds never quite penetrated the walls of the KU basketball offices.
“Panic may be too strong,” said Self, when asked recently by the Journal-World just how worried he was about his roster this spring. “We’ve always figured out a way. People said we were losing kids. Well, you’re losing kids to Duke and Kentucky. I mean, good gosh. They’re not the easiest guys to get when those programs make them priorities as well.”
Little by little the questions mounted and the concerns about the 2019-20 season grew louder.
No matter the reason, each time Kansas missed out on another top target — Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, James Wiseman, Zeke Nnaji, Matt Hurt, Cassius Stanley, Precious Achiuwa — the situation became more dire.
“I lost a lot of sleep, man,” said KU assistant Jerrance Howard. “It was a lot of stressful nights, especially because we, and me personally, put in so much time with Matt (Hurt, who chose Duke).”
Rather than sulk every time a recruiting battle went against them, the KU coaches maintained their composure, trashed the file and moved on as quickly as possible.
There are tiers of targets in every recruiting class, but there is not time to dwell on the negative outcomes.
“With coach Self, what I think really makes him good is that he always says, ‘You never stop recruiting,’” Howard said. “Whether it’s overseas or a transfer, you’re always on the phone and he wants you having your ear to the street (to hear) if anybody’s leaving or anybody’s going to transfer at the last minute. You never stop recruiting.”
After missing out on six straight targets, things slowly started to turn in the Jayhawks’ favor.
Three days after Hurt chose Duke and at the exact minute Stanley picked the Blue Devils, KU announced Udoka Azubuike would be back for his senior season.
A month later, KU got positive outcomes from four of its next six key decisions and things started to roll from there.
They might not have been getting good news from Top 10 prospects in the 2019 class, but, in a way, the news they were getting was even better.
A month after Azubuike announced his return, point guard Devon Dotson did the same. Five days before that, Silvio De Sousa’s NCAA suspension was reduced from two years to one, making the junior forward eligible for 2019-20.
“The best players we could ever have signed were Dok and Silvio and Devon,” Self said.
While the good news was pouring in from players he had already coached, the Jayhawks seemed headed for a major coup when Top 5 talent R.J. Hampton reclassified into the 2019 class and appeared to be on his way to signing with the Jayhawks.
“We were going to get R.J. Hampton,” Self said. “And we never even new that (New Zealand) was an option until a media person tipped us off the night before that that could potentially happen. That was new territory. But I’m fine with it. R.J. is a terrific prospect and all of that. But, with Devon coming back, we had a pretty good point guard.”
Although Hampton wound up skipping college altogether to play professionally in New Zealand, his role in this journey was more evidence of what Howard talked about: no matter how many say no and how bad things look, just keep recruiting.
“This past year, we really exhausted Plans A, B and C and we had to go to Plan D or whatever,” Self said. “So we were able to do some things late that didn’t have the impact from a national recruiting (splash) standpoint, but may have more of an impact on us winning, at least initially.”
Those “things” included a batch of late signings. None of them were the Andrew Wiggins-, Josh Jackson-, Dedric Lawson-type pickups of springs past. But they were important. And the signatures came from talented four-star prospects who had other quality options.
Four-star forward Tristan Enaruna, a long, athletic wing oozing with upside, signed in early May.
Grad transfer Isaiah Moss, who addressed KU’s biggest need (3-point shooting), backed out of a commitment to Arkansas to come to Kansas in early June.
And serendipity helped make four-star forward Jalen Wilson available after the coach he initially signed with, John Beilein, left Michigan for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In early July, as the cherry on top, KU landed a commitment from yet-to-report point guard Dajuan Harris, who finished up his academic work this summer and still hopes to join the Jayhawks in time for the 2019-20 season.
Harris, who may be headed toward redshirting his first season, appears to be that luxury depth piece that the Jayhawks don't necessarily need right now but someday figure to be awfully glad they have.
“His whole philosophy is just always recruit because you never know what’s going to happen,” Howard said of his boss’ approach. “That’s what I learned from him a long time ago. It’s never over.”
Added senior Mitch Lightfoot, who has seen Self work his share of magic on and off the court: “There’s a reason coach Self is in the Hall of Fame. He figures stuff out, and look where we’re at now. I think it’s pretty amazing that Coach can do that. What’d we have, like, seven guys on the roster (in early May)? Now we’ve got guys coming back. We’ve got good recruits coming in. We’re excited.”
Self has never shied away from saying that KU being mentioned in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball recruiting has had an impact on his ability to sign top players in recent months.
But he also doesn’t believe the wild ride that shaped KU’s current roster was in any way detrimental to the Jayhawks’ future.
“I’m excited about where we’re at,” he said. “I like our roster. Time will tell if it’s a roster that can compete at the very highest level, but it’s amazing to me, everybody outside our camp thinks it can. These guys are all going to be good players at Kansas — all of them.”