LAWRENCE — Bill Self was hopeful. That’s how he describes it now. Late last May, Self had landed a commitment from Tarik Black, a graduate transfer from Memphis who was looking for a more promising situation in his final year of college basketball.
Self knew that Black was a burly big man — 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds. He knew Black had averaged close to 10 points in three seasons at Memphis. And he knew, no matter what, Black would be the Jayhawks’ most experienced post player.
But he wasn’t sure if Black could come into a program and emerge as a charismatic leader on a young team — a team still lacking an identity and voice. But after three weeks of practice, the marriage between graduate transfer and blue-blood program has been even more seamless than Self hoped.
“He’s very, very bright,” Self said Saturday. “And he’s beyond his years, maturity-wise. And even though the reason we recruited him is because he could help us win, the residual effect is that we probably got one of our two biggest team leaders in return.”
Black’s presence was on display Saturday morning during a public scrimmage at Allen Fieldhouse. Black finished with six points and five rebounds in front of an estimated crowd of close to 10,000 fans. And for the moment, Black appears set to begin the season as Kansas’ starting center.
Beyond the production, Self has been pleased with Black’s ability to mentor KU’s younger big men, including 7-foot center Joel Embiid. If Embiid can find a way to harness his natural gifts, he may soon cut into Black’s minutes. But that hasn’t stopped Black from offering lessons each day in practice.
“I’m gonna teach Joel everything I know in this one year; everything that I can teach him,” Black said earlier this month. “Because that’s just one of my main jobs. I’m gonna be a big factor on this team, I plan on being one. But at the same time, a guy like JoJo, I take my teammates very serious.”
Self adds: “He’s been great for our young guys … he hits them every day, and he applauds them every time they hit back. It’s been fun to watch.”
The stated reason for Saturday’s open scrimmage was to make good with fans that were turned away from “Late Night in the Phog” on Oct. 4. But Self also had two of the nation’s top senior recruits on campus this weekend, and attracting 10,000 fans to a practice made for pretty good recruiting stagecraft.
Chicago center Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 overall player in the 2014 class, sat courtside with Minnesota point guard Tyus Jones, who is ranked as Rivals’ No. 5 overall player.
The day, though, also provided Self a chance to see how his young players performed in front of an audience. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. Freshman swingman Andrew Wiggins finished with 21 points, but Self would still like to see his heralded freshman run harder in transition and lock in more on each possession.
“If he feels like he can get something, he’ll take off,” Self said. “But sometimes he doesn’t. He doesn’t understand when he runs, it stretches the defense.”
For now, Self is still working through a potential rotation. But a core group of six or seven players has emerged. On Saturday, Black started on the Blue team alongside Wiggins, sophomore forward Perry Ellis, junior point guard Naadir Tharpe and freshman guard Wayne Selden. Sophomore forward Jamari Traylor and sophomore guard Andrew White III served as the Blue squad’s two reserves.
The Blue squad won 71-50, while Self mixed up the teams multiple times.
“I really haven’t figured it out,” Self said. “but I do know there’s a core five or six or seven that I know is gonna play.”
Add Embiid to Black, Ellis and Traylor, and you likely have KU’s four-man frontcourt. But if there’s been a surprise thus far, it could be White, who appears to be slightly ahead of freshmen Frank Mason, Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene in the battle for reserve backcourt minutes.
“He’s a good rebounder,” Self said, “and doesn’t make a lot of mental mistakes.”
If there is a gap between Kansas’ returners and newcomers, Self says it’s narrowing. But as Self prepares for the exhibition opener against Pittsburg State on Oct. 29, the next weeks of practice could be about finding out which players best complement KU’s front men.
“From a talent standpoint, there is a gap; our new guys are talented,” Self said. “From a knowledge standpoint, there’s a gap (because) our new guys don’t know what they’re doing. But if you look at it, if we can get two veterans on the court at once, it makes it a lot easier for those young guys to play.”