The regular season tip off against Michigan State provides a platform to gauge a young Jayhawks team.
While the Champions Classic is not season defining, the start to non-conference play will offer a strong sample of what Kansas can become by March. In the Jayhawks’ last exhibition game, Dedric Lawson led the team in points (18), shooting 100 percent from three in the process. Udoka Azubuike made all six of his shot attempts and Lagerald Vick was 4/7 from long range, as the trio looked poised and prepared for the real contests to begin.
However, some of the younger Jayhawks did not look as well adjusted. In comparison to his brother, K.J. Lawson has struggled to immediately translate his skills in Lawrence, turning the ball over three times and going 0/6 in his 14 minutes against Washburn. Freshman Quentin Grimes made only 27.3 percent of his field goals, finishing the night with seven points and a team-high four turnovers. Former Co-Big 12 Newcomer of the Week sophomore Marcus Garrett had a disappointing showing as a scorer as well, recording zero points as a starter.
In order for Kansas to start the year on a positive note, players will need to dial up their intensity quickly to beat Tom Izzo’s 10th ranked Spartans. Michigan State also lost key pieces in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. the the NBA draft, but still has elite talent in junior point guard Cassius Winston, junior guard Joshua Langford and junior forward Nick Ward. Their upperclassmen fire power will challenge a KU squad relying on transfers and underclassmen.
A few areas to watch tonight:
Rebounding: After being able to coast through far inferior exhibition opponents, how will Kansas respond to the intensity of a top 10 team? Featuring a more front court heavy roster, the Jayhawks should be able to crash the boards and create more possessions. For the newcomers who may struggle to find a rhythm early, will they mentally check out from the frustration or hustle on the other end to make a contribution?
Turnovers: While no one is expecting the polish and flow of a team that has logged many meaningful games together, Kansas cannot forfeit the turnover battle as they did in their last dress rehearsal. Grimes and Devon Dotson must decrease their seven combined turnovers in primetime tonight.
Halftime adjustments: If the Jayhawks have the lead after the first half, will they come out stagnant in the second or continue to force their tempo? If Kansas finds themselves trailing, can they change course quickly and put together an early run out of the halftime? How the team responds to Bill Self’s direction and tweaks will speak volumes about their level of readiness to face the nation’s toughest schedule.
The Champions Classic will either serve as a promising stepping stone for future success or provide ample tape for the coaching staff to use as a teachable moment for the preseason number one team. Regardless of the outcome, the Jayhawks are fortunate to be able to examine their abilities against a top-tier program out the gate.