Truth be told, Kentucky’s opening night game Friday against Utah Valley and Sunday matinee against Vermont are tune-ups for next Tuesday’s trip to Chicago to play No. 4 Kansas in the Champions Classic.
The Jayhawks finished their exhibition season on Tuesday night, beating Division II Fort Hays State 86-57. That followed exhibition wins over Missouri 93-87 on Oct. 22 and Pittsburg State 100-54 on Oct. 31.
So here are three early things to be gleaned from Kansas’ exhibition games:
1. Devonte Graham will be Kansas’ leader
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This is no surprise. The 6-foot-2 guard surprised some when he decided to return to Lawrence for his senior season with the perennial Big 12 favorites, but Bill Self is sure glad he did. Graham scored 27 points, including 16 in the first half, to lead Kansas in the win over Fort Hays State. He scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the win over Kansas.
Out from under the shadow of former teammate and fellow guard Frank Mason, Graham has host the ball well. He as eight-of-12 from the floor, including six-of-10 from three-point range on Tuesday night.
His teammates found it more difficult to hit from behind the stripe. Svi Mykhailiuk missed all seven of his three-point attempts on the way to a four-of-13 night from the floor on Tuesday. Malik Newman, the former UK target who started out at Mississippi State before transferring to Kansas where he sat out last year, was just three-of-nine from the field, including two-of-six from three.
As a team, Kansas was nine-of-31 from three-point land on Tuesday. The Jayhawks were eight-of-25 from three against Missouri and eight-of-23 against Pittsburg State.
2. Udoka Azubuike is back and healthy
The 7-foot center from Delta, Nigeria played just six games as a freshman in 2016-17 before a wrist injury finished his season. A McDonald’s All-American, he arrived in Lawrence as a raw prospect who did not even begin playing basketball until his family moved to the U.S. his freshman year in high school.
Also a former UK target, having a year to sit and watch and finally practice may have helped Azubuike, who had 15 points and a team-high nine rebounds on Tuesday. He scored 16 points in the win over Missouri and produced a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds in the win over Pittsburg.
After Kansas opens its season Friday by welcoming Tennessee State to Allen Fieldhouse, Azubuike could match up against Kentucky freshman Nick Richards in Chicago. It will be a challenge for Richards, a 6-11 center originally from Jamaica who played his high school basketball in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
3. Billy Preston is a Kansas freshman to watch
A 6-10 forward from Oak Hill Academy via Los Angeles, Preston was ranked No. 11 for the Class of 2017 by Rivals. Coming off the bench, he scored in double-figures in each of Kansas’ three exhibition games.
Preston had 12 points and four rebounds in the win over Missouri. He followed that with 10 points and four boards in the win over Pittsburg State. Tuesday night, Preson scored 11 points in 23 minutes, making all four of his field goal attempts in the second half.
That wasn’t enough to impress Self, who was unhappy with the Jayhawks play overall against Fort Hays State. Asked bout Preston, the coach said, “I thought he played poorly.”
Kentucky basketball 2017-18 schedule
Thomas More *
Morehead State *
E. Tennessee St. 2
Fort Wayne 2
West Virginia 5
SEC Tournament 6
March 15-April 2
All times Eastern. Games in Rupp Arena are Bold
1 State Farm Champions Classic (Chicago)
2 Adolph Rupp Classic (Lexington)
3 Citi Hoops Classic (New York)
4 CBS Sports Classic (New Orleans)
5 Big 12/SEC Challenge (Morgantown, W.Va.)
6 SEC Tournament (St. Louis)