Last week, as Kansas coach Bill Self prepared his basketball team for its four-game tour of Europe, he was adamant that the most important benefit from the Jayhawks’ once-every-four-years exhibition trip had already occurred.
KU had been able to practice 10 times in July and early August, and for whatever experiences came out of the four games in Switzerland and France, they wouldn’t match what the young Jayhawks had learned on the practice floor.
Two games into the Jayhawks’ trip, it may be too early to know for sure whether Self’s words were prophetic. But if you take the short view — and look simply at KU’s two games this week against the Swiss national team — one thing seems clear.
Despite losing two All-Big 12 players — and adding eight scholarship freshmen — these Jayhawks still remember how to close at crunch time. The latest example came Wednesday, as senior forward Kevin Young came through in the final minutes, helping KU polish off the Swiss 83-79 in Fribourg, Switzerland.
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The victory came less than 24 hours after KU held off the same Swiss squad 79-76 — and it concluded a draining three-day stretch that featured a transatlantic flight, some local sightseeing and two close wins.
“This is a tired group,” Self told reporters after the game.
If fatigue was a factor, it didn’t appear to affect Young in the game’s pivotal moment. With KU trailing 79-77, Young cleaned up a miss from senior guard Elijah Johnson and tied the game at 79-79. Moments later, center Jeff Withey blocked a Swiss player on the other end, and Young finished a fast break with a go-ahead jam.
“I just had a good game tonight at the end of the game,” Young said.
It was the kind of stretch that Young perfected as a reserve last season — winning 50-50 balls and using his athleticism to make something out of nothing.
“He drives me nuts because he does things all the time that bother me,” Self said. “And then when the game’s on the line, he usually comes up with some extra possessions and some key plays.”
Young finished with 12 points on six-of-seven shooting from the floor, but the Jayhawks also received a lift from part of their young corps of newcomers — a corps that was made smaller when freshman Ben McLemore was limited to just five minutes because of a hip strain.
Freshman guard Andrew White had a team-high 16 points, while freshman forward Perry Ellis started and finished with nine points and six rebounds (and four fouls) in 11 minutes. In two games, White has displayed a measure of poise, a fact that Self noted on Thursday. On a team with veterans such as Withey (10 points, 10 rebounds), Johnson (14 points) and Travis Releford, White hasn’t been afraid to take shots. In two games, he’s averaging 13 points per contest.
“I thought Andrew White, obviously, did some good things, offensively,” Self said. “He led us in scoring and shot the ball pretty well.”
The Jayhawks also overcame a rather substantial free-throw disparity. The Swiss were 25 for 38 from the line while KU was just 12 of 19.
“We’re definitely playing on the road,” Self quipped.
During the stretch of practices in July, Self mostly ignored his team’s defense to make sure his inexperience unit could find some success on offense. On Thursday, that strategy was an imperfect solution. Freshman forward Zach Peters had seven points and five rebounds in 13 minutes, while other freshmen struggled to get involved. The Jayhawks won — but it wasn’t always pretty.
The Jayhawks now travel to Paris, where they’ll take on AMW Team France on Saturday and Sunday.
“We got a long ways to go,” Self said. “Still, it was a good game for us to have to make some plays down the stretch once again.”