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Five things to watch as Kansas basketball heads to Italy

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Kansas guard Devonte Graham, right, wields a jump rope with his teammates during Boot Camp in the practice gym on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016 just after 6 a.m.

Kansas guard Devonte Graham, right, wields a jump rope with his teammates during Boot Camp in the practice gym on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016 just after 6 a.m. by Nick Krug

The Kansas men’s basketball team is en route to Italy and the Jayhawks’ summer exhibition tour is officially under way.

While a good chunk of the excitement surrounding this year’s foreign trip is on the cultural experience the Jayhawks will get in visiting the Colosseum, Vatican City and other interesting and historic parts of Rome and Milan, there also is plenty of reason to pay attention to the basketball that will be played.

I’ll be there every step of the way chronicling the Jayhawks’ journey and bringing you results and analysis of all four games, sights, sounds and reaction to their cultural outings and whatever other interesting tidbits and unforeseen gems pop up during the next eight days.

Our coverage this week is brought to you by KU Bookstore — go check out their latest KU gear and follow them on Twitter at @KUBookstore — and you’ll want to check back with the site often throughout the next eight days for videos, blogs, photos and updates from the Jayhawks’ journey on Italian soil.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at a few things I’m looking forward to learning while away. Don’t get me wrong, checking out the Colosseum and the Vatican and all of the other amazing sights, smells and scenes Italy has to offer will be an absolute joy. But it is still a work trip and basketball is still the focus, so I’m determined to make it as enjoyable for you as it is for me.

Here’s my quick list of things I’m interested in learning about heading into the trip:

1. Devonte’ Graham in a leading role — We already know a great deal about Graham the player. He’s a great shooter, a heck of a competitor and can handle the rock and play D the way Bill Self demands. But we haven’t seen much of Graham as a leader just yet. Natural leadership seems to be a trait that Graham has an abundance of and the guess here is that he’s just been waiting for his time to break it out. That time is now and I’m sure we’ll see plenty of it on this trip. How that will impact his play — and not whether or not he can do it — will be the most interesting thing to watch here. But I’ll be shocked if Graham comes back to the United States with anything other than an A for his leadership grade during the trip.

2. The return of Udoka Azubuike — The big man is back and better than ever, according to teammates. Several Jayhawks have marveled recently at Azubuike’s improved footwork, solid conditioning and general presence on both ends of the floor. Even if he only plays 20 or so minutes a game in Italy — which seems to be Self’s goal for just about everyone on the roster — I think we’ll see plenty of shining examples of all the things we’ve only heard about up to this point. Last season we saw glimpses of the force that Azubuike could become. This week, we’ll get to see just how far along he is in that department.

3. The birth of Billy Preston — Self talked a lot about Preston on Sunday, one day before the Jayhawks hopped on the plane to head over the pond, and although he admitted that the freak freshman was not “ready” to make a major impact just yet, Self said Preston’s play this week could go a long way toward proving he’s getting there. So how can he get that done? Easy. Effort. Preston is an extremely gifted basketball player, both in terms of skills and physical abilities, and he has the potential to be a difference maker for the Jayhawks as soon as this season. The best way for him to get there is to let it go, play loose and with incredible effort every minute he’s on the floor. If Preston can forget about style points and worrying about what he’s doing, he could show coaches that he’s ready for the next step. Until then, the talented freshman will continue to be a work in progress, albeit one that any coach in America would love to be working on.

4. Transfer city — A month ago, this category looked a lot more comprehensive, with as many as six transfer expected to get their first real action as Jayhawks. That number is down to four now, thanks to Jack Whitman's departure and Dedric Lawson’s suspension, but that doesn’t mean it will be boring to track the transfers. For one, guards Malik Newman and Sam Cunliffe (second semester) will be eligible to play for the Jayhawks during the 2017-18 season. Both likely will have meaningful roles, with Newman potentially being one of the more important scorers on the roster. After that, though, we’ll get a rare glimpse at the future, as well, with K.J. Lawson and former Cal point guard Charlie Moore also making their KU debuts. Newman and Cunliffe figure to get more minutes than the other two, but seeing what skills each has along with how the whole group works together will be as noteworthy as anything both for today and the future.

5. Any surprises? — Each time one of these trips or long-distance tournaments happens, there are players who step up and show a little more than many people expected. This team has three prime candidates to earn that label when the trip is over — sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot, junior guard Lagerald Vick and freshman guard Marcus Garrett. Here’s how: With the departure of Whitman and the Jayhawks down to three eligible big men, Lightfoot’s role becomes even more important than it already would have been. That’s good news for Kansas because such a role and reality is exactly what Lightfoot likes. Self has said throughout the summer that Lightfoot has been one of the hardest working, better looking players on the roster and he has a chance in Italy to show that his improvement translates from practice and drill settings to games. Vick probably has the longest way to go to qualify as a true surprise, but there is room. He was solid in a supporting role last season but the opportunity to take another step is there this year. Vick is confident and ever-improving, he wowed a handful of NBA scouts at an Under Armor camp this summer and has a chance to be a lot more like Josh Jackson than anybody believed was possible heading into last season. It will take some work. And the biggest jump he’ll have to make is defensively. But Vick’s a competitor and he’s hungry. That’s a good combination for a big trip. Finally, let’s look at Garrett, who has drawn great reviews from veteran guards Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman and also has impressed the heck out of his new head coach. Few thought Garrett would arrive on campus and play 20 meaningful minutes a game as a true freshman and he still might not. But he probably will this week and that will give Self and the KU fan base a good look at whether he can handle that type of role.

Stay in touch with KUsports.com for all kinds of coverage of KU’s overseas adventure in Italy throughout the week and, if you’re not already, give Matt Tait ( @mctait ) and our Twitter account (@KUsports) a follow to make sure you don’t miss a minute of the action.

And remember, if you want to watch the Jayhawks in action yourself, FloHoops has you covered.

Comments

Kevin Whelan 2 weeks, 4 days ago

You do a great job, Matt! Looking forward to your coverage and insights. I know you must be looking forward to a lot of fun, but I know it will include work. Enjoy!

Matt Tait 2 weeks, 4 days ago

Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate that. Luckily for me these situations work out pretty darn well. Regardless of where I am, the work part of this job is a pretty good time, too. Connecting in D.C. now and then it's on! Enjoy!

Roger Ortega 2 weeks, 3 days ago

Safe travels and look forward to reading your thoughts & impressions. I'll be watching on FloHoops too! So freakin excited! ROCK CHALK!

Barry Weiss 2 weeks, 2 days ago

I think Vick will be a starter, not sure how Svi jumps past him unless Svi has a great trip. Either way, its a good problem to have. Two very talented young men that we will need a solid 8-10 points per game and better defense from both of them.

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