Sidelines with John Clay

Five things to know about Kansas basketball for the Champions Classic

Kansas guard Devonte Graham (center) talked with teammate Udoka Azubuike in the first half of Kansas’ win over Tennessee State University at Allen Fieldhouse on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017.
Kansas guard Devonte Graham (center) talked with teammate Udoka Azubuike in the first half of Kansas’ win over Tennessee State University at Allen Fieldhouse on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017. Kansas City Star

Five things to know about Kentucky’s opponent in Tuesday’s Champions Classic, the Kansas Jayhawks:

1. Bill Self and John Calipari are nearly joined at the hip

Bill Self is the head coach at Kansas. John Calipari is the head coach at Kentucky. Self has won one NCAA title, which came in 2008 when he beat Calipari and Memphis in the finals. Calipari has won one NCAA title, which came in 2012 when he beat Self and Kansas in the finals. Calipari was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2015. Self was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame two months ago.

Since Calipari arrived at UK in 2009, Self is 2-3 against the Cats but has won two straight. “They’ve beaten us pretty good the last two years,” said Calipari on Tuesday, referring to the Jayhawks’ back-to-back victories over Cal’s Cats in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Two seasons ago, Kansas edged UK 90-84 in an epic overtime encounter at Allen Fieldhouse. Last year, Kansas marched into Rupp Arena and snatched a 79-73 win.

Like Calipari, Self was an assistant under Larry Brown at Kansas. After eventually making his way back to Lawrence as the head coach, Self has gone 417-87 in 14 seasons and one game. Under his guidance, the Jayhawks have won or shared an incredible 13 straight Big 12 titles. He’s had eight teams win 30-or-more games. He’s been to those two Final Fours.

He’s also 2-5 in the Elite Eight at Kansas. In fact, the Jayhawks are on a two-game Elite Eight losing streak. In 2016, as the No. 1 seed in the South Region, Kansas lost to eventual champ Villanova 64-59 in Louisville. In 2017, as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, Kansas lost to Oregon 74-60 in Kansas City.

2. Devonte Graham is the best old-guy guard in college basketball

A year ago, Graham averaged 13.4 points per game operating in the shadow of National Player of the Year Frank Mason III. Now it’s Graham’s time to shine, and it appears the 6-foot-2 senior from Raleigh, North Carolina, will take full advantage.

Right out of the gate, Graham nearly produced a triple-double in Kansas’ opening 92-56 romp over Tennessee State last Friday. He scored 10 points, dished a career-high 12 assists and grabbed seven rebounds. “He didn’t score in the second half and he still dominated the game,” Self said afterward.

Before that, in Kansas’ exhibition game with archrival Missouri for the benefit of charities, Graham scored 25 points and claimed 10 rebounds as the Jayhawks held off Michael Porter Jr. and Mizzou 93-87.

Self has recruited a ton of former five-star prospects and future NBA stars, but Graham was rated the 110th-best prospect in the class of 2014. He’s since developed into one of the nation’s top backcourt players who will no doubt be a handful for Kentucky’s young guards on Tuesday.

3. Udoka Azubuike is (a) very big and (b) back

As a freshman backing up starting center Landon Lucas, Azubuike played in 11 games last season before suffering a wrist injury that shelved him for the rest of the season. The 7-foot, 280-pound native of Nigeria is back, healthy and now a starter.

Azubuike scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds in the curtain-lifting win over Tennessee State. “Udoka had a free pass last year in the games he played,” said Self recently. “If he played well, great. If he didn’t play well, it wasn’t the end of the Earth. Now there’s pressure on him to play well.”

There’s also pressure on Azubuike to avoid foul trouble. Kansas isn’t especially deep in the post. The 6-10 Carlton Bragg transferred to Arizona State, though Bragg was more of a power forward type. Same for Billy Preston, a promising 6-10 freshman from Los Angeles, who was held out of the Tennessee State game after missing a class. Preston is expected to play against Kentucky.

4. Kansas will shoot a lot of three-pointers

“They’ll shoot 25 to 30 three-pointers,” Calipari predicted Tuesday, and indeed last year’s Jayhawks averaged 21.7 three-point attempts, the most of any Self team at Kansas.

The hosts were 12-of-28 from beyond the three-point line against Tennessee State. Lagerald Vick made four of seven threes against TSU. Svi Mykhailiuk was 3-of-6 after making just three of 16 three-point attempts in KU’s three exhibition games. Malik Newman, former Kentucky target who transferred to Lawrence from Mississippi State, was 2-of-4 from three in the opener.

As a team, Kansas made 32 percent of its threes in the practice games. That’s down considerably from the 40.4 percent last year’s team shot from three. Graham himself was 37.8 percent from three-point land in 2016-17. Mykhailiuk shot 39.8 percent. Vick shot 37 percent.

5. Kansas hasn’t had a whole lot of success in the Champions Classic

This is the seventh year of the annual early-season showcase matching programs from four of the most consistently successful programs in the sport. The records thus far: Kentucky 5-1, Michigan State 3-3, Duke 2-4 and Kansas 2-4.

One of the two Kansas victories came last year in Madison Square Garden when the Jayhawks edged Duke 77-75 after UK took apart Michigan State. In 2015, Kansas lost to Michigan State 79-73. And in 2014 in Indianapolis, Kansas was blown away by Kentucky 72-40 at Bankers’ Life Fieldhouse. It was the worst loss, by margin, in Self’s Kansas tenure. After that game, before taking questions from the media, Self took a swig of bottled war and quipped he had hoped it was vodka.

Now, three years later, Self jokes that he doesn’t remember that game.

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