ATLANTA — At some point on Tuesday night, a Kansas freshman will stand near center court at the Georgia Dome and take in the cavernous surroundings. The lights will be hot, the stands buzzing with NBA scouts, and four of the most historic programs in the country will make this football stadium the center of the college basketball world — at least for a night.
What else can you call the Champions Classic, the three-year event that will reconvene tonight in downtown Atlanta? And what better way for a college basketball coach to learn about his team, a trial-by-fire matchup with another blue blood in the season’s first days.
“That’s always gonna be an eye-opening thing,” KU senior Elijah Johnson told reporters on Sunday in Lawrence.
After playing all of 40 decent minutes in a victory over Southeast Missouri State on Friday night, the latest, yet unproven incarnation of the Kansas basketball team will take the floor against No. 21 Michigan State for a 6 p.m. tipoff. No. 3 Kentucky will play No. 9 Duke in the second leg of the event.
Last year at this time, Kansas was in a similar state of affairs at Madison Square Garden, taking on a youthful Kentucky squad in the first year of the Classic. The Jayhawks ran out of gas that night, falling 75-65 as Kentucky freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist introduced themselves to the nation.
Nobody knew that those two programs would meet in the Superdome in New Orleans for the NCAA title nearly five months later. But then again, that’s the thing about playing a marquee non-conference game in the season’s first week. The only thing Bill Self knows for sure is that he’s about to learn a lot more about his band of experienced seniors and heretofore untested freshmen.
“It’ll be interesting to see how our young guys react under the lights, too,” Self said on Sunday. “It’s one thing to play at home and be nervous in front of our fans. It’s another thing to go on the road.”
Just one game into their careers, Kansas freshmen Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore will be counted on to play substantial minutes against a ranked team. And seniors Johnson and center Jeff Withey will get their first opportunity to be leading men in the same building that will play host to the Final Four this April.
“This will be definitely a learning experience for the team,” McLemore said.
The seventh-ranked Jayhawks shot just 39 percent (two for 21 from three-point range) in their 74-55 victory over Southeast Missouri State on Friday. And with a slew of newcomers, the KU offense has alternated between muddied and choppy.
But Michigan State, 0-1, is coming off a surprising 66-62 loss to Connecticut in a regular-season game that was played at the Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany on Friday.
“They played good against Connecticut,” Self said. “They just got off to a miserable start.”
Last year’s Champions Classic served as something of a primer for the college season. There were two eventual No. 1 seeds — Michigan State and Kentucky — along with the two national finalists. And the four teams in New York accounted for three first-team All-Americans and 23.3 percent (seven of 30) of the first-round picks in last summer’s NBA Draft.
Johnson still says that the Jayhawks learned something in last year’s loss to Kentucky. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor were still becoming comfortable as go-to guys. And players such as Johnson and Withey were finding their way as regulars for the first time. After that loss, the Jayhawks learned that they needed to be better — but also that they weren’t that far away.
“That was the game that woke us up,” Johnson said.
Unlike last season, the Jayhawks will head into Tuesday night as favorites. It’s a peculiar position for a team still trying to coalesce into a seamless unit. Senior forward Kevin Young will return tonight after missing close to two weeks with a broken bone in his shooting hand. So that should give the Jayhawks a shot of experience.
But if Self were being honest — as he was last week — he’d prefer that KU’s young players had a few more practices before playing a nationally televised game in a Final Four-type venue. But if nothing else, he says, he’ll certainly have a better idea of his team’s toughness after 40 minutes with Michigan State.
“I think everybody’s ready to play,” McLemore said. “I think everybody’s excited, so I think this big game is definitely gonna help us out in the long run.”