Top-ranked Kansas to open with MEAC’s NC Central

The No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks consider anything less than a Final Four run a disappointment.

The Jayhawks will welcome North Carolina Center to Lawrence, Kan., on Nov. 6 in the season opener for both teams. An 82-75 loss to No. 25 Illinois in an exhibition game in Champaign, Ill., on Sunday wasn’t going to alter the program’s expectation of ending the season in Phoenix, site of the 2024 Final Four.

“Two years ago, we addressed the crowd and said we think this team has a real chance,” Kansas head coach Bill Self told the crowd at “Late Night at the Phog,” the annual preseason practice that sells out Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks won the title that season.

“We told you 2008 (their previous national title) was a long time ago and we need to do it again, and those kids made it happen. We waited 14 years to get our second (national title under Self). I’d like to think two years sounds a helluva lot better than 14.”

That, of course, drew a big response from the crowd. The optimism is well-founded.

The Jayhawks return last season’s 2023 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Dajuan Harris, and Most Improved Player, KJ Adams Jr. Also back is Kevin McCullar, who was an honorable mention on the the preseason all-conference team.

But the biggest addition to the Jayhawks, both literally and figuratively, is Hunter Dickinson, the 7-foot-2-inch transfer from Michigan.

Dickinson, the most sought-after player in the transfer portal, was a three-time All-Big Ten selection, including first team honors in 2022 and 2023. He averaged 17.2 points and 8.4 rebounds for his career and led Michigan in points and rebounds each of his three seasons.

“He is the most skilled and most talented offensive player that I’ve had from a center standpoint,” Self said. “There’s a lot of things he’s got to get a lot better at defensively, (like) guarding ball screens and protecting the rim or the paint.

“But shooting, aggressiveness, passing, playing out of doubles, he probably is as advanced as anybody I’ve ever been around. He is, without question, the most equipped to have a big year.”

Dickinson is embracing the attention and the pressure that comes with it.

“I like people knowing it, because I want them to know we’re better than them,” Dickinson told ESPN at Big 12 media day. “And they’re coming in here to try to upset us.”

Kansas traditionally has one of the toughest schedules in the nation, but the opener is not one of the reasons. The Jayhawks are ranked No. 2 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. North Carolina Central is ranked No. 306. The Eagles will face the Jayhawks for the first time.

North Carolina Central finished the 2022-23 season at 18-12, good for second place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The Eagles are led by Fred Cleveland Jr., who was selected to the preseason all-MEAC third team. He averaged 14.2 minutes and 5.6 points per game. His 2.8 assists per game average was tied for eighth in the conference.

While the transfer portal has helped Kansas, NC Central coach LeVelle Moton is not a fan. He has compared it to the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.

“I’m a housing project kid,” he said. “It reminds me of when crack cocaine hit the streets when I was a kid. And if just for lack of a better analogy, that’s exactly what this thing reminds me of. It’s the wild, wild west. There’s no rules, there’s no values, there’s no trust, there’s no integrity. No one is standing on their word anymore. It’s just chaotic.”