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Kansas basketball's success hinges on Cheick Diallo's eligibility

Kansas will be stacked with or without Diallo, but the five-star freshman is capable of pushing Bill Self's squad over the top. The Jayhawks are our No. 3 team.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Kansas failed to win the Big 12 regular season title, Facebook had just launched, all your friends were quoting the same lines from "Napoleon Dynamite" and Hoobastank was responsible for a top-10 hit on the Billboard charts. Yeah, it's been a while.

Bill Self is now gunning for his second decade of dominance in the Big 12 after wrapping up his 11th straight conference championship last season, but Kansas' stranglehold on the league likely isn't doing much for its fans anymore. After failing to make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons, Self knows he's overdue for a deep tournament run.

It's about reaching Final Fours at Kansas, and Self is equipped with the pieces to get there after last season's talented but vexing team was never able to reach its potential.

The last two seasons of KU basketball have been defined by a reliance on five-star freshmen: First Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, then Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre. The team Self returns this year is more experienced and deeper than its predecessors, but it's still hard to shake the feeling that the season will again come down a blue-chip freshman. Only this time, no one knows if he'll even be on the roster.

Cheick Diallo was the No. 7 recruit in the class of 2015 according to ESPN and the MVP of both the McDonald's All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic. More importantly, he's a perfect fit in a Kansas front court that needs a strong defensive and athletic complement to Perry Ellis' methodical but efficient offensive game. Diallo, who is an absolute buzz saw defensively, projects as the ideal match.

The only problem is he hasn't been cleared by the NCAA yet, but if you hang around college basketball types long enough you'll start to hear whispers that it seems likely he doesn't play at all this season.

Kansas can be a juggernaut with Diallo, but they're still capable of being a great team even without him. This is one of the deepest rosters in the country, giving Self all sorts of lineup flexibility to find the right blend of offense and defense.

Frank Mason III made major strides last season as a sophomore, and is expected to be a staple for the Jayhawks this season. Ellis is back again -- get those jokes ready about him being in college for a decade -- and few big men at his level are as refined offensively. Wayne Selden is hoping for a breakout year too after a nice showing at the World University Games.

Behind those three, Kansas has a wealth of options. The Big 12 seems to improve every year, but Kansas is still the favorite here until someone proves they can be bested. Oklahoma, Iowa State and Baylor will be tough, but the conference belongs to the Jayhawks until further notice.

Projected lineup

PG Frank Mason III, junior

SG Wayne Selden, junior

SG Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, sophomore

PF Perry Ellis, senior

C Cheick Diallo, freshman

Key reserves: PG Devonte' Graham (sophomore), SF Brannen Greene (junior), PF/C Jamari Traylor (senior), PF Landen Lucas (junior), C Hunter Mickelson (senior), PF Carlton Bragg (freshman)

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How Kansas can succeed: Mix and match lineups to keep the opposition on its toes

Kansas can run two point guards. It can load up on defense and rebounding in the front court. It can spread the floor with shooting at four positions. With so much flexibility, Self's biggest challenge this year is maximizing his lineups and figuring out what type of identity he wants the Jayhawks to have.

It's a safe bet that Kansas will be able to play both ends of the court. In Self's 12 seasons at Kansas, has finished in the top 40 of KenPom's offensive efficiency standings every year but once, twice finishing with a top-three offense. The defense has been even more impressive, with eight top-10 finishes since Self arrived, including two years where Kansas ended the year No. 1 in defensive efficiency.

The trick will be finding lineups that can both score and defend in the NCAA Tournament, but Self has plenty of time to experiment with his roster before that.

Want to run two point guards? Mason and sophomore Devonte' Graham would give the Jayhawks speed and shooting on the perimeter. Mason went from a 32.7 percent three-point shooter as a freshman to a 42.9 percent shooter as a sophomore, while also leading the team in assists and finishing second in scoring. Graham hit 42.5 percent of his threes as well and should be ready for a bigger role this season.

There's options on the wing, too. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk was a 17-year-old freshman last season, and he has the height (6'8) and range to be a matchup nightmare for opposing two guards. Many believe Mykhailiuk is poised for a breakout campaign.

Selden, who entered school as a McDonald's All-American alongside Wiggins and Embiid, could be ready for a jump, too. He averaged a team-best 19.3 points per game this summer at the World University Games. He's been inconsistent as a college player but has the size (6'5, 230 pounds) and strength to bully opponents. If he can cut down on his turnovers and improve his playmaking ability, he can be a major asset.

In Brannen Greene, Self has a 6'7 three-point shooting ace who might be capable of holding down minutes at the four to spread defenses out. If Self wants to load up on size, he can choose between Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucan, Hunter Mickelson and five-star freshman Carlton Bragg inside.

Traylor plays with great energy and might be the best defender of the bunch, but his play is often erratic. Mickelson didn't play much last season as a transfer from Arkansas but might have the best jump shot of the lot. Lucas does a little bit of everything and was earning minutes over Cliff Alexander at times last year.

This is a deep, deep team. Self just needs to figure out how he wants to play and the rest should take care of itself.

How the Jayhawks can go home early: The interior defense is weak without Diallo

Perry Ellis is a very solid offensive player. After posting a true shooting percentage north of 60 percent as a sophomore, he expanded his game as a junior to take more threes (hitting them at a 39 percent clip). He'll be Kansas' primary scoring option once again.

The only problem is Ellis isn't a super athlete or great defensive presence. Diallo's combination of speed and length would be perfect next to Ellis, but if he's ineligible, it's fair to wonder if the interior defense can hold up.

Also, given Kansas' wealth of options, it's possible someone (or several players) won't be getting the role they had hoped for. Self will have to find a way to manage a collection of personalities and keep everyone happy.