Coach Bill Self isn’t sure what to be expect when top-ranked Kansas steps on the floor for its first regular-season game of the season against No. 10 Michigan State on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic.
The Jayhawks were sloppy in a pair of easy exhibition wins. They have a new-look roster featuring a series of Division I transfers and high-profile recruits. And they’re facing a team in the Spartans that will be a major upgrade over Division II schools Emporia State and Washburn.
One thing is certain: Self will be glad the focus on the Jayhawks is back on the court.
Rather than in the courts.
His program has been dragged through the mud the past six weeks as three officials linked to shoe company Adidas were convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for their roles in funneling money from the company to the families of recruits at Kansas, Louisville and its other partner schools. Power forward Silvio de Sousa, whose family was mentioned in the court documents and testimony, will be held out against the Spartans and for the foreseeable future as his eligibility is investigated.
Self and his staff have not been accused of any wrongdoing, nor has the school, which has maintained throughout the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption that it was merely a victim. But it nevertheless has cast a shadow over the school that has been difficult to shake.
Maybe the bright lights of the Champions Classic will finally do it. The Jayhawks and Spartans open the season’s traditional lid-lifting doubleheader in Indianapolis, while second-ranked Duke takes on fourth-ranked Kentucky in Tuesday’s nightcap.
“I’ve studied them a little bit,” Self said of the Spartans. “It’s totally different personnel on both sides. They always seem to play well against us. We’ll have to play a lot better than what we have played. Hopefully we’ll also raise our level that maybe we haven’t seen yet, too, going there.”
The Jayhawks may have a new-look lineup but they do have plenty of Division I experience.
Their leading scorer and rebounder during their exhibition wins was Dedric Lawson, a forward who transferred from Memphis along with his brother, K.J. Lawson. And one of their steadiest ball-handlers in their two games at Allen Fieldhouse was Charlie Moore, a transfer from California.
“I’m very excited to play against a top-10 team early in the season,” Dedric Lawson said. “I think it’s a good time for us to see where we really stand collectively.”
Five-star prospects Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson and David McCormack will also factor into whether the Jayhawks can make another Final Four run, but all of them will have to go through some growing pains.
That much was evident during the exhibition games.
“Moving it up to a Tuesday to start the season and having a game of this magnitude this early, I’m not sure it will be the best played, especially if you’re playing with young kids,” Self said. “We are, and they have some young kids as well.”
The Jayhawks do have some holdovers from last year, though, and they will no doubt rely on bruising big man Udoka Azubuike and springy guard Lagerald Vick against the Spartans.
“Our team is ready,” Azubuike said. “We just have to tighten up a lot of stuff. Overall I think we are ready as far as talent, and I know they will be ready too, so we have to attack.”
Self has done an admirable job insulating his players from the off-the-court issues that could have become a distraction. But that task will almost certainly become easier once the ball is finally thrown up on Tuesday night and the regular season gets under way.
“It’s the beginning of the season. The fans are excited, everyone wants to see what Kansas can do,” Azubuike said. “It’s the first big, official game that we play in. I think the way we go into that game really helps us moving forward. The stage of the Champions Classic is close to the same stage as the Final Four. I told the younger guys we can’t think too much. We just have to play our game.”
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