LAWRENCE — During the past few weeks, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self has attempted to give his team an elementary introduction to their European destinations.
The Jayhawks will depart today for Zurich, Switzerland, the first stop on a four-game, two-country exhibition tour. And senior guard Travis Releford says Self has told his team how beautiful Switzerland is supposed to be — how he wants his players to enjoy the experience as much as the basketball.
But on Saturday afternoon, as the Jayhawks finished up their 10th and final practice of the last month, Releford hung back in the KU practice facility and admitted he hasn’t thought too much about the idyllic European locales or possible sightseeing options.
“I don’t know,” Releford said. “We’re just excited to go over there and play.”
For Releford and the rest of the returning players, this will be their first time in a game situation since leaving the floor inside the Superdome in New Orleans, dejected and exhausted after their NCAA title game loss to Kentucky.
And for the newcomers — a group that includes eight scholarship freshmen — the trip provides an opportunity to get a jumpstart on their college careers, a chance to shorten the learning curve that will surely surface when the regular season begins in November.
“It’s a motivator,” said redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, who sat out last season after being declared a partial qualifier by the NCAA.
The game action starts Tuesday, when KU will take on the Swiss National Team at noon (central time) Tuesday in Fribourg, Switzerland. The trip will continue against the Swiss at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. And the Jayhawks will finish the trip in Paris with two games against AMW Team France, a team of French professionals, on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12.
For KU coach Bill Self, the most important basketball part of the trip — the 10 extra practices KU was able to use in July and early August — has already passed. Self was able to teach the basic parts of the Jayhawks’ offense to the freshmen, and the newcomers were able to pick up positive habits from KU’s four returning seniors — Releford, center Jeff Withey, guard Elijah Johnson and forward Kevin Young.
“I’m comfortable playing with those guys, just because they’re always talking to me,” said freshman Andrew White, a 6-foot-6 guard from Chester, Va. “That’s the advantage of playing with upperclassmen.”
Self said he hopes to play every player around 18 to 20 minutes per game, a plan that would give ample court time to freshman post players Perry Ellis, Zach Peters and Landen Lucas.
In addition, Self believes the trip could have an impact on McLemore and fellow redshirt freshman Jamari Traylor — players that will likely be thrown in the fire in November.
Last season, Self says, Withey was a bench-warming center entering his junior season with basically zero miles on the odometer. He was also already penciled in as a starting member of the Jayhawks’ frontcourt. So Self and the KU staff found a way to send Withey on a European tour with Athletes in Action. And Withey came back with a newfound self-belief.
“It’s amazing to me how much his confidence just shot up by seeing the ball go in the hole,” Self said. “And hopefully, that’ll be the same with these guys.”
On Saturday, Self also brought up the last international trip the program took, a summer trip to Canada in 2008. That trip, of course, came just months after KU won the 2008 title — and it also featured a team with plenty of fresh faces.
“We were awful,” Self said.
So, yes, the results may have been underwhelming, but the extra games paid dividends in the long run. And Self is hoping that the work put into four games in Europe in August will pay off this fall.
“The biggest thing is,” Self said, “I want to give us the biggest chance to win games in early November, because we’ve got some big ones in early November. I think with eight freshmen, this gives us a better chance.”
Notes — McLemore tweaked a hamstring during Saturday’s open scrimmage. He stayed on the sidelines for the rest of the afternoon, but said he expects to be fine by KU’s first game on Tuesday. … KU’s first opponent in Europe — the Swiss National Team — has some recent success against American college teams. The Swiss beat Texas A&M twice last August while the Aggies were on a similar tour. … Self said he was following three former players in the Olympics. Former KU center Sasha Kaun helped the Russian team to a victory over Spain and a perfect 4-0 record in Group B on Saturday. In addition, two of his former players at Illinois — Robert Archibald (Great Britain) and Deron Williams (USA) were competing in London.