There’s a very obvious pecking order that outlines exactly who Sunday’s Border War scrimmage for hurricane relief is actually for.
First in line are the victims of the tragic hurricanes, who, according to KU coach Bill Self, stand to receive “well north of a million (dollars)” from proceeds from the game. That number easily could go up, if not double, now that the schools have created a pay-per-view option for fans to watch the game from home.
Second is the fans, both at home and in attendance, who figure to show up hours early and scream until their voices give out, rooting against the players and fans from their most bitter rivals.
And third is the players and coaches in both programs.
In actuality, it’s that last group that stands to benefit the most in terms of immediate gains from the exhibition game that was thrown together in a little over a week and has the entire area buzzing.
But in terms of lasting memories and long-term impact, it’s those first two groups that will be talking about this contest long after the 2017-18 Jayhawks and Tigers have moved on to their respective seasons.
Self knows that better than anyone, and on Thursday he explained why.
“I’d be shocked if (the players) feel like fans do,” Self said. “There’s not one player on Missouri’s team that’s connected to Kansas and there’s not one player on our team connected to Missouri. Whenever we used to play, everybody in both programs was totally connected because we’d been playing each other. So the connection (today) is through the fans, it’s not through the individuals.”
With that said, even when the rivalry was at its hottest, it was still the fans who made the rivalry as intense as it was.
Yeah, there were some serious villains, epic games and intense memories — good and bad on both sides — but, for the players and coaches themselves, those games, though huge in the moment, merely represented one or two parts of a season-long quest to win a conference championship, reach the Final Four and challenge for a national title.
More often than not, and probably more often than fans would care to admit or even realize, the war waged between the players was about the basketball first and foremost, with the bitterness and nasty part of the rivalry being most prominent with fans, before, during and after the games were played.
“Even when we used to play,” Self began. “You can talk about the great games we’ve had at Missouri and the hatred and the rivalry. But, hey, go interview (former Mizzou guard) Kim English and ask him if he hated the Kansas players. His first response will be, ‘No, I loved competing against them.’ Go interview Thomas Robinson and see if he hated Missouri. He’d say, ‘No, I didn’t hate (them). Those guys were cool. I just loved playing against them.’ It didn’t have anything to do with the individuals and it didn’t have anything to do with the coaches either. It wasn’t a bigger game for me because we were going against Frank (Haith) or Mike (Anderson). Or for them because they were going against me. It was a bigger game because it meant so much to the fan base.”
See, guys like English and Robinson, and dozens of others before them, were a part of the rivalry only for a handful of years. They never heard the chants of "Sit Down Norm!" or saw the Antlers in action or knew what it felt like to watch Anthony Peeler or Doug Smith make life miserable for the Jayhawks. They had their time, it was spectacular, but it came and went just like the rest of their careers.
The fans, though, most of them lived every wild and crazy moment. Many can tell you where they were precisely when this shot or that game went down. Most of them can recall what they were wearing and why. So for them, the Border War was not a fun four years of ups and downs, high intensity and horrible heartbreak. It was a way of life. And, even with the rivalry dormant for the past five-plus years, all of those moments and memories have lived on with them and continued to be talked about year after year.
To say every player who ever participated in the rivalry felt the way Self suspects English and Robinson did would be flat-out wrong. There are former players on both sides of the state line who, to this day, still harbor a lot of disdain for the opposing side and can, in a second, get fired up when talking about the past and the Border War rivalry. But the two teams that take the floor on Sunday will not benefit from that added incentive.
Sure, Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman and the rest of this year’s Jayhawks, along with Michael Porter, Cuonzo Martin and the new-look Tigers will want to represent their schools and bring Border War bragging rights back home with them.
But it won’t be because they hate the other side. It will be because they know their fan bases do and giving the fans something to be proud of is a big part of why these guys compete the way they do.
In a world where hate fills the headlines day after day, sometimes hour after hour, it does not seem necessary for an exhibition game for a good cause to include hatred as part of the hook.
“You can try to sell it that way,” Self said. “But why waste energy trying to sell it that way for an exhibition game? The whole deal is to try to get better. I’ve said this before and I’ll reiterate it; this thing was done to raise money. So everybody in attendance can be proud that they’re doing something for others as opposed to just coming and watching their school play what was once considered, without question, their biggest rival.”
As with most games and nearly every special event, all sides and viewpoints will be represented in this one. Some fans will go just to enjoy the experience and add it to a long list of enjoyable KU basketball outings. Others will go with their intention being to get nasty and stir up trouble. As long as the two can peacefully coexist, to each his own.
But for the players themselves, Sunday’s game will not be about hating Mizzou or wanting to send a message. Instead, it will be about taking advantage of a golden opportunity to test themselves against another talented team before the season even begins and getting better in the process.
That is the main reason they plan to show up and play hard. And honoring the stakes their fans have in the bragging rights game, though important, is secondary motivation.
“It’s big,” sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot said. “It’s another opportunity to play against a team that has legitimate talent and it’s an opportunity for us to see how we stack up and what we need to address heading into the season.”
As for the role the fans will play, Lightfoot said he and his teammates heard from a few hundred women during the program’s recent Ladies Night Out fund-raiser about how important this game was, and, while creating equal parts excitement and laughter, Lightfoot said he understood their message.
“They were just expressing how much they wanted us to win and stuff like that and telling us their memories from the Border War,” he said. “It’s really cool to see their passion about it.”
Added Newman, when asked whether he thought his team would get after it on Sunday: “Of course,” he said. “Why are you gonna go out there in front of all the fans and not play hard like it’s a real game?”
• BORDER WAR QUIZ: Test your knowledge of KU-MU Border Wars past and enter to win a $25 Visa gift card.
— BORDER WAR QUIZ: Test your knowledge of Border Wars past and enter to win a $25 Visa gift card.
One of the most popular comments from the Kansas basketball crowd that was not in favor of renewing the Border War with Sunday’s Showdown for Relief scrimmage at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., was the declaration that they would write a check to hurricane relief for 10 times the amount of a ticket to keep the game from happening.
Well, the game is happening and, as you surely know by now, is already sold out. So finding fans to gobble up those tickets clearly was not that tough of a task.
But I don’t think those folks who said they’d rather donate their money another way were all that crazy. In fact, they might have been on to something.
Instead of breaking down and bringing the Border War back for a day, KU and Mizzou easily could have waged a fund-raising war against one other, with coaches and even players (if the NCAA would allow it) urging their fan base to donate to a specific charity in support of hurricane relief.
It could’ve been a weeklong endeavor or a month or even a year and both athletic departments could have updated fans on a regular basis about where they stood in an effort to (a) drive the competition and (b) keep people informed about how much money had been raised to date.
It might not have brought the same excitement as Devonte’ Graham and Udoka Azubuike against Michael Porter Jr. and new MU coach Cuonzo Martin, but it definitely would have worked toward achieving the end goal of raising money for hurricane relief.
As it stands, they’ll play a game instead and donate a bunch of money to hurricane relief while, at the same time, giving fans from both sides — and, yes, there are KU fans out there who are more than fired up about Sunday’s showdown — a nice memory in the storied Border War rivalry and yet another reason to get excited about the upcoming season.
But don’t give up on that idea of a head-to-head, fan base vs. fan base fund-raising campaign on the side.
One of our commenters here at KUsports.com — David Robinett — was part of a group that put together exactly the type of challenge we’re talking about. And it could not be easier to execute.
All you have to do is dial #250 from your cell phone and then follow the prompts that ask you for a “key word” — in this case, “Kansas” or “Missouri.”
From there, you will receive a text message with a link to a Red Cross account that is designed to collect money for hurricane relief from either Kansas or Missouri fans.
Robinett, a member of the KU Class of 1983, said they will track the results, i.e. who donates more, KU or MU fans, and we’ll definitely get an update from him sometime next week.
No need to worry about this being any kind of a scam. I tried it myself and the text came with a link that takes you to a redcross.org page where you can donate.
Following the link that is sent to you via text is important, though, because that’s how they’ll track things.
Without so much as scoring an actual basket or helping the Jayhawks snag a victory that counts, freshman guard Marcus Garrett already has made quite an impression on Kansas coach Bill Self.
That’s because Garrett, the 6-foot-5, 180-pound Dallas native who has grown bigger, stronger and tougher every day since arriving in Lawrence last summer has carried himself like a veteran from the minute he arrived.
There is no immaturity in Garrett’s game. There’s even less in his demeanor. But he’s also not one of those overly intense athletes about whom the words, “Chill, man” come to mind when watching him operate.
Instead, Garrett is just sort of there, ready, willing and able to fill whatever role the Kansas coaches ask him to fill and having a blast while doing it.
The versatile guard so perfectly has fit into the Kansas basketball culture that Self constantly goes out of his way to mention Garrett when talking with reporters. Sometimes it’s his defense. Other times it’s his versatility. And still other times it’s the potential for him to be the one player best suited to fill the Josh Jackson role from a season ago, albeit not at the level that the future-No. 4 overall pick did.
His teammates like him. He already looks like the kind of player who has been around KU for years. And, the best part about all of it is that it seems incredibly likely that he will be around for at least the next three. That sets him up to have a pretty nice career and the early stages of it will be seen plenty this season.
Asked for his thoughts about Garrett during KU’s recent media day, senior point guard Devonte’ Graham’s face lit up when he started talking about him.
“He’s gonna be good a player here,” Graham said simply. “He’s gonna be really, really, really good.”
While that might be forecasting ahead a bit, let’s take a look at what to expect from Garrett during the 2017-18 season.
He Will: Become a KU fan favorite almost immediately
There’s a chance that this will happen without a lot of people even noticing. After all, this is still a team with Graham and Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick and Billy Preston on it. And those guys, as well as others, figure to catch the attention of Kansas fans much more often than Garrett.
Still, there will be those moments, perhaps even once per game, when just about every KU fan out there finds themselves saying, “Man, I really like this kid,” when Garrett checks out of the game after a productive and no-frills four or five minutes on the floor.
The reason? He’s a hustler. Garrett knows how to play, he knows how to do what the coaches ask and, perhaps most importantly, he’s willing to take on whatever role is necessary to both get him minutes and help the team.
Sometimes that will be locking down an opposing scorer. Other times that will be hitting the glass when KU’s bigs are in foul trouble. And other times it will be for hustling to get back just in the nick of time to save a bucket or diving out of bounds after a loose ball to save a possession.
He Won’t: Play enough minutes to put up big numbers in any category
It’s obvious that Self likes Garrett and plans to use him. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Remember, the four guards in the rotation ahead of Garrett are proven players with a ton of talent and even more experience.
So, whether Self loves him or not, it’s not as if the Kansas coach is going to play Garrett 30 minutes a game by limiting Graham, Malik Newman, Vick or Svi Mykhailiuk in the process. Those guards area all going to play well above 30 minutes a game so the minutes available for Garrett in the backcourt should be limited.
The good thing about it, though, is the Dallas freshman who was a triple-double machine at Skyline High during his senior season, is capable of learning all four positions and therefore can spell any of the four whenever they need a break, be it for a breather or because of foul trouble.
That alone should allow Garrett to play in the 10-12 minute range on most nights. And, if the bigs get into foul trouble and he is asked to emulate Jackson by using his strength, length and size to hold it down at the 4 for a few minutes one night, his minutes will go up from there.
But even if he is on the floor for as many as 20 minutes a game, it’s not as if he’s suddenly going to be a No. 1 option in any area. As is the case with most freshman, Garrett’s numbers will come from him being ready to contribute whenever and wherever his number is called. But that role is not one that often fills up a stat sheet.
He Might: Be this team’s best defender
Quick hands, a good head, long legs and physical strength, Garrett is so gifted athletically that he can match up with just about anybody, 1 through 4, when he’s on the defensive end of the floor.
More than his ability to do it is his willingness, as Garrett has never seen a challenge he didn’t like.
It’s going to take a lot more than the solid defense he showed during the team’s exhibition trip to Italy to prove that Garrett can be a big time defender in the Big 12. But, again, the freshman is up for whatever role he can find that helps the team. And he’s smart enough to know that the fastest way to playing time with Bill Self is to become a tough and trustworthy defender.
Garrett will never have the too-cool-for-school vibe that some players exhibit which prevents them from giving all they have on the defensive end.
And being willing is half of the battle to becoming a good defender. The other half is listening to Self and his assistants, emphasizing team defense as much as individual defense and competing tooth and nail on every possession no matter who the opponent is or what the situation.
Garrett will do those things, he’ll like doing them and it will be easy to see when, night after night, he frustrates older, more experienced players, even if for just a few minutes.
He Will, He Won't, He Might 2017:
Part I: • Devonte' Graham
Part II: • Lagerald Vick
Part III: • Svi Mykhailiuk
Part IV: • Malik Newman
Part V: • Udoka Azubuike
Part VI: • Billy Preston
The work is not done in the 2018 recruiting class for the Kansas men’s basketball program, which, after landing three big time commitments in the past couple of months, currently boasts the No. 2-ranked class to date per Rivals.com, just three points behind Michigan State, which has five 2018 players committed.
Among the 2018 class thus far, Bill Self and company are tied for tops in the nation, with Arizona and Duke, with two five-star commitments and also sit tied with Arizona with a 4.67 average-per-playing star rating.
Point guard Devon Dotson, who committed to Kansas last week, and Oak Hill big man David McCormack, are both five-star prospects. And IMG forward Silvio De Sousa, who was the first in the class to commit to Kansas, is a listed as a four-star prospect with the potential to move up.
Needless to say, that trio alone would leave Kansas in pretty good shape, both in terms of reloading its roster and in the team rankings when the ink on all of the signings is dry.
But the fact that KU is still heavily involved with some of the top players in the class, including powerhouse forward Zion Williamson, leaves the potential for KU’s 2018 recruiting class to be the best in school history, no small feat.
The Jayhawks remain in the hunt for Williamson, and also are pursuing guards Quentin Grimes and Romeo Langford. It’s not impossible to envision a scenario in which all three decide to become Jayhawks and it seems likely that at least one of them will.
KU has been rumored for weeks to be a strong possibility for Langford and the addition of Dotson only strengthens KU’s chances at landing Williamson because the 6-7, 230-pound, do-everything forward who visited KU for Late Night absolutely loves playing with Dotson.
Add to that the fact that Dotson is now in hot pursuit of any and all potential Kansas teammates and it’s easy to see that the Jayhawks are far from done in what is already shaping up to be a stellar class.
“Of course I’m gonna be going hard after some other players in my class trying to get them to join me,” Dotson wrote in his USA Today blog after his commitment. “I’m gonna be talking to Zion. I feel like me and Quentin Grimes would play well together and Romeo Langford too. Those are the players I’m focusing on for now.”
While Dotson turns up the heat on some of the top remaining talent in the 2018 class, the KU coaches continue to try to close the deal on a couple more 2018 prospects while also exploring possibilities for 2019 and beyond.
Self and company got some good news on that front earlier this week, when Vernon Carey, the No. 1 overall player in the 2019 class, per Rivals.com, revealed his Top 8, with Kansas firmly in the mix.
Carey, a 6-9, 230-pound forward from University High in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, listed Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Miami, Michigan State, UCLA and UNC as his finalists, telling Corey Evans of Rivals.com: “I just feel like I have good relationship with all their coaching staffs. I am probably talking to Duke, Michigan State and Miami the most.”
KU has some work to do to crack Carey’s final list, but the Jayhawks also have time. Carey told Evans that he planned to trim his list one final time next summer before making a decision.
That gives the KU coaches time to continue to make their pitch to the versatile lefty while also continuing efforts to add to the already-stacked 2018 class that just keeps getting better and has taken a lot of the stress of the class out of the equation by landing so many quality early commitments.
Remember, KU had just one early commitment in the 2017 class — four-star guard Marcus Garrett — and only wound up with two players in the entire class, leaving KU with one unused scholarship heading into the 2017-18 season.
• Entire segment is about the upcoming KU-Mizzou exhibition game at Sprint Center.
— BORDER WAR QUIZ: Test your knowledge of Border Wars past and enter to win a $25 Visa gift card.
One day after learning that Kansas point guard Devonte’ Graham had been named to the Bob Cousy Award watch list, Graham’s running mate, Malik Newman, landed on the Jerry West list.
Newman, a transfer from Mississippi State, who sat out last season and is eligible to play this year, is one of 20 shooting guards from throughout the country to land on the Jerry West preseason list.
Named after Hall of Famer and 1959 NCAA Final Four Most Valuable Player Jerry West, the annual honor, in its fourth year, recognizes the top shooting guard in Division I men's college basketball.
A national committee comprised of top college basketball personnel determined the watch list of 20 candidates, which can be altered at any point during the 2017-18 season.
The list will be trimmed to 10 in February, five in March and a winner will be announced in April during the ESPN College Basketball Awards Show in Los Angeles.
Newman, the Big 12 preseason newcomer of the year, led the Jayhawks in scoring during their four-game exhibition trip to Italy this summer. Before that, he averaged 11.3 points per game while starting 22 of 29 games during his freshman year at Mississippi State.
2018 Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award Candidates
Allonzo Trier - Arizona
Mustapha Heron - Auburn
Jerome Robinson - Boston College
TJ Haws - BYU
Marcus Foster - Creighton
Grayson Allen - Duke
KeVaughn Allen - Florida
Rob Gray – Houston
Malik Newman - Kansas
Hamidou Diallo - Kentucky
Bruce Brown Jr. - Miami
Lonnie Walker - Miami
Quinndary Weatherspoon - Mississippi St.
E.C. Matthews - Rhode Island
Khadeen Carrington - Seton Hall
Shamorie Ponds - St. John's
Tyus Battle - Syracuse
Andrew Jones - Texas
De'Anthony Melton - USC
Daxter Miles Jr. - West Virginia
— BORDER WAR QUIZ: Test your knowledge of Border Wars past and enter to win a $25 Visa gift card.
The day hundreds of KU fans and nearly every Missouri fan has been waiting years for is now just a few days out, when the Border War returns, for one day only, in the form of a basketball scrimmage Sunday at Sprint Center.
While the reasons for the game have been well documented and are almost entirely focused on raising money for hurricane victims and little else, there’s still plenty to like about the idea of these two bitter, old rivals getting back together for what promises to be an intriguing match-up at the very least.
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing clear up front: Kansas is and should be a heavy favorite in this game, with the fictional point spread hitting somewhere around 10-12 points in KU’s favor.
The experience, the talent, the familiarity within the system and the coaching advantage all favor Kansas. And if both teams were to line up and play a winner-take-all type of game, the Jayhawks would probably win by double digits.
The fact that it’s an exhibition game that means nothing and figures to feature every player on both rosters getting at least a few minutes of court time changes things a little because we just don’t know how hard either side will compete — or coach — to win this game.
Sure, it’s important. Neither side wants to lose it. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not worth wearing down your guys or risking injuries just to win a game that does not count. So you have to factor that into the equation when thinking about just how competitive this one will be.
The guess here is that it will be more fun than ferocious. Remember, none of the players on either side have ever experienced a true Border War game. They might know the history and even know a couple of players who competed in the good old days, but that still keeps them at a bit of a distance from the teeth of the rivalry and one random Sunday exhibition won’t change that.
With that said, here’s a quick look at five things I’m most looking forward to about Sunday’s Border War Showdown for Relief:
1 – The crowd split
This one feels a little like an NCAA Tournament game or neutral site clash in that one of the big questions surrounding it will be which team’s fans show up in greater numbers.
Remember wondering that during the Big 12 tournament for a couple of those KU-Iowa State clashes? Or how about up in Omaha, during the NCAA Tournament, when KU and Wichita State finally faced off? Each university in this scenario was given exactly half of the tickets available for the Border War revival. But does that mean Sprint Center will be 50 percent crimson and blue and 50 percent black and gold? I doubt it.
One side will have more fans there and one side will be louder. Will those two be the same?
2 – Michael Porter Jr.
I won’t lie. I want to see how good this kid is. Every recruiting guru out there has raved about him for the past couple of years and the most recent ESPN.com 2018 NBA mock draft by Jonathan Givony (formerly of draftexpress.com) has him listed as the No. 2 overall pick.
That’s serious praise for some serious talent, something KU fans know a thing or two about. It’ll be interesting to see if it jumps off the court in this one or if Porter, at this stage in the season, looks like just another guy.
3 – Udoka Azubuike vs. real talent
It’s been a while since we’ve seen the KU big man play against real talent. And, no, those camp scrimmages in the summer do not count because nobody is actually trying to stop him because nobody wants to (a) get hurt or (b) hurt him. And this summer, in Italy, where Azubuike played just two games, the Italian teams he faced offered little resistance in the way of size or skill, which led to a dunk fest for two games for the KU big man.
The Tigers’ roster features three players who have the kind of measurements that might allow them to match up with KU’s 7-foot, 280-pound monster. One is Porter’s brother Jontay, a 6-11, 240-pound forward who reclassified to join the team. Another is prized freshman Jeremiah Tilmon, who stands 6-10, 252, and was actually recruited by KU for a little bit. And the other is 6-10, 252-pound sophomore Reed Nikko, who played in 28 games a year ago. None of these three are as big and imposing as Azubuike, but, as a trio, they should be able to challenge him a little.
4 – What lineup will Kansas go with?
I’m not talking about just a starting lineup here — although that will be interesting — I’m talking about the way the Jayhawks play throughout the course of the scrimmage.
Last week, a media day, KU coach Bill Self said he wanted to play with two big men at least 50 percent of the time, down a little from the 70 percent goal he had stated after Late Night. While drawing too many conclusions from what happens in a meaningless exhibition game would be foolish, it would also be foolish to not at least take note of how Self works his rotation and what kinds of lineups he puts on the floor against a real, live, breathing, potentially Top 25 Division I team.
5 – How much money can they raise?
Let’s not forget the whole point of this deal, and, with ticket prices expected to bring it at least a quarter of a million dollars on their own, it will be interesting to see just how much money they can get for this high-profile fundraiser.
Self said last week that the hope was to exceed $1 million and, with concessions and other opportunities to donate all over the arena being prevalent, it certainly seems possible.
KU officials said on Tuesday that they had sold out of their allotment of tickets and Missouri announced the same thing earlier in the week, meaning the secondary ticket market is the only remaining place to purchase tickets for Sunday's 3 p.m. game.
One thing I’ve seen a ton of people complain about is how the game won’t be televised and how they’re missing out on a great opportunity to get even more money from television viewers. But that’s a bad excuse for not donating. If you’re complaining about it because you would’ve donated had the game been on television, bust out your credit card and donate to the American Red Cross now and follow along with our coverage and/or on the radio broadcast on game day.
One KU official told me that KU and MU could have televised the game but elected not to because their priority was to fill the building.
With rumors of a possible scrimmage, for charity, between the Kansas and Missouri men's basketball teams later this month dominating sports talk in the area late Thursday afternoon, one natural question came to mind.
Are Kansas fans excited or upset about the idea of renewing the Border War with the Tigers, even if only for a day?
A quick Twitter poll that was open for just 15 hours drew more than 1,700 votes and revealed that people appear be split down the middle, with 52 percent of voters saying they were against the idea and the other 48 percent saying they couldn't wait for it.
While there still has been no official word about whether the scrimmage will actually happen, it's worth noting that this is far from a slam dunk, at least from the Kansas side of things.
Sure, the idea behind the game is a good one — old rivals come together to raise money for hurricane relief. How can anyone argue with a good cause like that?
But it seems as if there are more than a few KU fans who still believe the Jayhawks and Tigers should never play again because, in their minds, it was Mizzou who ended the rivalry and the Jayhawks don't own them anything.
That debate will rage on for a while. Possibly even decades. And the particulars have been well documented throughout the past few years.
What will be interesting is to see how the attendance breaks down at Sprint Center, if this scrimmage is in fact played. The guess here is that the crowd advantage would got to the Tigers, with the advantage on the court clearly going to Kansas.
Time will tell if either of those guesses are true or if the game even happens. But, at least based on a little feedback from Twitter, it's clear that not everyone is giddy about the potential game.
The most popular theory circulating among fans of the Kansas men’s basketball program says that point guard Devonte’ Graham returned to KU for his senior season to take the reins from Frank Mason III and make his own run at national player of the year honors.
At least one publication believes that scenario is entirely possible.
Attempting to pinpoint the preseason picks for national player of the year during the upcoming 2017-18 college basketball season, Chris Johnson, of SI.com, recently tossed Graham into his first tier, labeled “The Favorites.”
Graham was joined by Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Arizona’s Allonzo Trier and Duke’s Grayson Allen.
“Last season Graham played second fiddle to the senior guard who swept the national player of the year awards, Frank Mason,” Johnson wrote. “Mason’s departure, as well as that of lottery-bound freshman forward Josh Jackson, should enable Graham to spread his wings as a featured scorer and lead playmaker while piloting a team that’s heavily favored to take home at least a share of its 14th consecutive Big 12 championship.”
Johnson projects Graham’s senior stats to look something like this — 15.8 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game.
While those numbers are a notch below what Mason was able to produce last season — 20.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.2 apg — they speak to a similar impact, with Graham both scoring and setting up teammates to do the same while chipping in on the glass and on defense.
Beyond that, Johnson’s projections and lofty praise are based on the fact that Graham’s minutes and points per game increased during each of his first three seasons at KU.
“Our model likes Graham to continue his positive year-over-year trend in scoring efficiency, and he’s a good bet to shoulder one of the heaviest minutes loads in the conference,” Johnson wrote. “The biggest cause for hesitation with Graham involves one of his teammates: The more times Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman calls his own number, the fewer shots there will be for Graham to take.”
While those four were listed as the favorites, Johnson’s list featured six other names broken into two more tiers.
The “Challengers” included Bonzie Colson (Notre Dame), Jalen Brunson (Villanova), Michael Porter Jr. (Missouri), and Joel Berry II (North Carolina). The “Don’t Overlook These Guys” tier included Trevon Bluiett (Xavier) and Jock Landale (Saint Mary’s).
It’s not in any way Billy Preston’s fault.
The Kansas freshman was not the man who labeled himself a five-star player. He did not place himself in the Top 10 of most recruiting rankings. And he did not award himself a spot on the McDonald’s All-American or Jordan Brand All-Star rosters.
All he did was grow to be 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, with a freakish frame, incredible athleticism and skills that few men his size possess.
So, yeah, when the college basketball world sees a player like Preston, the hype and expectations are going to be through the roof for what he can do or should be.
People, whether they want to admit it or not, already are expecting and hoping for Preston to be KU’s next great one-and-done player. And he might end up being just that.
But as of today, he’s just another player on a good team that’s trying to put it all together in time for the start of the 2017-18 season, which is now just three weeks away.
Remembering that will go a long way toward allowing fans to enjoy the Billy Preston experience at Kansas and here’s a quick look at what to expect, whether the upcoming season is Preston’s lone season at KU or not.
He Will: Frustrate the Kansas coaches for most, if not all, of the 2017-18 season.
This isn’t a knock — far from it. It’s just that when someone is gifted with a frame and the kind of physical tools that Preston possesses, they’re going to encounter situations where their coaches have high expectations and always want to see them play up to their ceilings.
That’s tough for any player to do consistently. But it’s even tougher to ask that of a true freshman getting his first taste of big time college basketball.
I don’t think the KU coaches will ask too much of Preston. But I do think they’ll expect him to at least be a factor inside and also will constantly be waiting for that moment when it all clicks and the five-star forward transitions from understudy to monster.
If such a moment happens for Preston, it will go a long way toward making the Jayhawks one of the top NCAA title contenders in the country. Who knows whether it will. But you can count on their being some frustrating games and practices while we wait to find out the answer.
He Won’t: Stop working to try and improve.
We haven’t seen a ton of Preston yet, but what we have seen has looked an awful lot like a young man who wants to learn as much as possible while he’s in college.
What Preston lacks in terms of giving all-out effort and intensity when he’s on the floor, he makes up for behind the scenes, where he constantly seems to be working to understand and utilize the lessons being thrown at him by the Kansas coaching staff and KU’s upperclassmen.
Going as far as to call him a sponge might be a step too far, but it’s clear that he has that insatiable desire to learn and improve his game.
The big question for Preston will be if he can improve to the point where his effort and intensity are consistent enough to match his desire to be great.
Doing so will require him to ditch his old habits, get out of his comfort zone and play with the kind of tenacity that Josh Jackson showed throughout his lone season as a Jayhawk. That's not to say Preston should try to be — or even could try to be — Jackson, but he absolutely could play with the same kind of fire that Jackson brought to the floor for every possession on both ends of the court. He just needs to change his mindset, listen to his coaches and convince himself that substance matters more than style.
He Might: Figure it all out by Big 12 play and be the X Factor for this KU team.
No matter who they are or what their status, freshmen typically need time to adjust to the college game. And Preston will be no different.
Even though KU’s non-conference schedule features a lot of home games against low-profile teams from smaller conferences, many of those teams feature veterans who have played a lot of college basketball and have matured, both mentally and physically, to the point of being able to hang with even the most talented freshmen in the college game.
So while one might think that a player of Preston’s pedigree should dominate teams like Tennessee State and Toledo and Texas Southern, that’s not always the way it goes. In fact, it rarely happens that way.
Those games do, however, provide a good opportunity for freshmen like Preston to learn and grown, make mistakes and get better, all with the goal being to have things figured out well enough by January to jump into Big 12 Conference play with a better understanding of what it takes to compete at this level and play at Kansas.
The biggest key here is consistency and progress. If Preston can get a little bit better each day and each week and avoid taking steps backwards or hitting major roadblocks, the coaching he gets and teammates he’s playing with will get him to the point where he can be a factor for this team when conference play begins (Dec. 29 at Texas) and the Jayhawks fire up their run for a record 14th consecutive Big 12 title.
Few teams Kansas faces will have a player who can match up with Preston's combination of size, skill and athleticism. And if he reaches the point where he is able and willing to exploit that by playing on the perimeter when it's warranted and doing work inside when it's needed, the freshman could play a huge role in just how far this team can go this season.
He Will, He Won't, He Might 2017:
Part I: • Devonte' Graham
Part II: • Lagerald Vick
Part III: • Svi Mykhailiuk
Part IV: • Malik Newman
Part V: • Udoka Azubuike