Tonight’s early-season Kansas University-Duke basketball game is for Jayhawk pride as much as anything else.
“We’re the only team that has not won a game in the Champions Classic. We need to win this one,” KU coach Bill Self said of a 9 p.m. battle between his Jayhawks (1-0) and the Blue Devils (1-0) in Chicago’s United Center.
KU fell to Michigan State, 67-64, last year in Atlanta and 75-65 to Kentucky in 2011 in New York in the one-day doubleheader, which involves the powerhouse programs trading off and playing each other. The Classic has been re-upped for another three seasons starting next year, with KU meeting Kentucky and Duke tangling with Michigan State in Indianapolis.
Duke is 2-0, Kentucky and Michigan State 1-1 in the made-for-ESPN event.
“We’re excited about it, but I do not get too excited about something in early November,” Self said. “Our players should be excited to play, but it’s just a step. A game in February deciding a conference championship, you’d have a whole different mind-set. You can’t make too big a deal out of it. No matter what happens, it’s so early.”
Times like these make Self glad he’s a basketball coach, not coach of another major sport.
“It’s a little different for football coaches. If you lose in football, it could be over for you if you have the high, high plans, BCS plans,” Self said. “Basketball is not like that. We have had it handed to us by Kentucky in the first game and ended up a 2 seed (reaching national title game in 2011-12). We had it handed to us by Michigan State last year and ended up a 1 seed (losing in Sweet 16).
“There’s time to catch up. It’ll be fun. It’ll be a great game for college basketball, at least early in the season. It’ll be terrific.”
The country sees this one as a showcase of two of the top freshmen in the country — KU’s Andrew Wiggins vs. Duke’s Jabari Parker. Parker, 6-foot-8 from Chicago’s Simeon High, had 22 points in Duke’s 111-77 opening win over Davidson. Wiggins, 6-8 from Canada, had 16 in the Jayhawks’ 80-63 win against Louisiana Monroe.
Of course, Duke also has the likes of Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton, and KU has Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, Naadir Tharpe … the lists go on with these perennial powers.
“It’s a program game to represent Duke,” said Duke’s Cook, who was a teammate of former KU guard Ben McLemore at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. He’s also a longtime friend of KU’s Tharpe, the two playing against each other as youths. Tharpe is from Worcester, Mass., and Cook from Washington, D.C.
“They are a great team. Bill Self is one of the best coaches in my opinion, in basketball, period. He’s going to have them ready,” Cook added.
KU players agree it’s special to go against an opponent wearing “Duke” on the jersey.
“As a kid, I watched games like this: Duke and Kentucky; Duke and North Carolina; Kansas and whoever they played,” Tharpe said. “These are the highlight games of the year, the games that will be able to put us on the map as a team and get everybody to understand we are a top-five team.”
Duke enters ranked No. 4 and KU No. 5.
“We’ll face a coach who is one of the best. Bill is one of the best,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. Self returned the compliment by saying coach K is “a pillar of our profession.”
“I think (Andrew) Wiggins is amazingly talented. They have a huge team,” Krzyzewski added. “A lot of people feel their big kid who comes off the bench (7-footer Joel Embiid) is the top prospect in the country for the pros. They have a lot of guys with NBA talent.”
Self’s opinion of the Blue Devils’ players is just as glowing.
“I told our team he (Hood, 6-8, Meridan, Miss.) is probably as good a 3-man in America as we’ll play against. He is experienced, a 4-year guy,” Self said. “Jabari Parker is as skilled a 6-8 guy as you’ll see, ever. He is a Paul Pierce-, Carmelo Anthony-type player. We recruited Jabari hard until we were told we made the final six, but he only got five visits. I think he’s a terrific talent and one of the best players, without question one of the best freshmen in the country.”
Sweet home, Chicago: KU’s Jamari Traylor returns to his hometown of Chicago for this game.
“I’m excited. I get to play in front of my family, have a good time. It’s a big game for us as far as the season goes. I’m going to go out there and have a good time and play hard in front of my home town,” Traylor said.
The former Julian High player, who finished high school at IMG Academies in Florida, never played in the United Center as a youth.
“Growing up, I never went to too many Bulls games,” Traylor said. “I always was a Bulls fan. I didn’t have a lot of money to go to a game. I went to two, three games my whole life. I always watched them. I never got a chance to play there like with state championship stuff. It’s not about me. It’s about getting the win for Kansas. It’s going to be good.”
As far as possible distractions, Traylor said: “Definitely a lot of people have been coming at me asking for favors. I sat down and talked to my coach. He said it’s not about that. He said, ‘Eliminate all distractions and focus on the game,’’’ Traylor said. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m not really worried (about seeing friends). I’m worried about the scouting report. I’ll see them when I see them. I’ve seen ’em all my life, 21 years. Another day won’t kill me to not see them (friends).”
Snow, glorious snow: KU freshman center Embiid had a funny Tweet after arriving in Chicago, which on Monday experienced a dusting of snow. “I think I love snow so I’m not going back to Africa when winter comes,” the 7-footer from Cameroon wrote.
Decisions coming: No. 1-ranked Jahlil Okafor, a 6-10 center from Chicago’s Whitney Young High who will attend tonight’s game, tweeted Monday that he would announce his college choice at 3 p.m. Friday. His good buddy, No. 5-rated Tyus Jones, 6-1 from Apple Valley (Minn.) High, tweeted about the same time that he would also announce at 3 p.m. Friday. The two are expected to choose either KU or Duke. Meanwhile, No. 4-rated Cliff Alexander, 6-8, from Chicago Curie, also will announce at 3 p.m. Friday. He is down to KU, Illinois, DePaul and Memphis.
“Neither Okafor nor Alexander want to announce before the other. If they do, it ruins ALL the hype leading up to each announcement,” wrote Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-eye.