There are many ways to ring in a new college basketball season. Kansas just happens to be a place where they do it with four seniors, decked out in pastel blazers and bow ties, dancing to a South Korean pop hit with more than 440 million views on YouTube.
Got all that?
That was the scene at “Late Night in the Phog” on Friday night at Allen Fieldhouse. KU seniors Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey, Travis Releford and Kevin Young appearing at midcourt, all riding an imaginary horse while 16,300 fans went into a frenzy, the sound of the Internet smash “Gangnam Style” blaring over the loudspeakers.
“Just big-man footwork right there,” Withey said.
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This was the start of basketball season in Lawrence, a mid-fall break from reality and football, a reminder of what the folks at Kansas do best.
“There’s 2,000 people that couldn’t get in tonight,” Kansas coach Bill Self said.
That might have been an exaggeration. But schools officials did say that KU turned away fans for the first time in several years. All for KU’s annual night of pomp, skits and basketball stagecraft that doubles as a one-night sales pitch for a row full of top recruits.
Last year at Late Night, Self took the mic and told a full house to enjoy the ride. The Jayhawks had lost so much talent, and it appeared they might be in line to take a small step back.
You know the rest, of course. Another Big 12 title. Another Final Four. And so on.
One season later, with three starters returning, and a cadre of new freshmen to fill the gaps, Self strolled onto the floor and referenced his speech from last season.
“The process worked out OK,” Self said.
Self did his best normalize expectations. The Jayhawks are going to be good, he says, but it may take a while. There are reasons for caution. Friday night was the public’s first look at a roster loaded with seven scholarship freshmen, including redshirts Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor. For KU to reach its ceiling, it seems reasonable that a few of these new faces will have to make an impact. So perhaps there was a little more interest when Wichita’s Perry Ellis, playing on the red squad during Friday’s scrimmage, finished a short jump hook in the lane. And maybe there was a little added excitement when McLemore slammed home an athletic alley-oop in his Late Night scrimmage debut.
“I was nervous at first,” Ellis said. “After the dancing, I got pretty acclimated and I felt good.”
By Self’s estimation, the newcomers did exhibit plenty of nerves. But you don’t get much out of 20 minutes of what Self calls not “real ball.” The red squad, with Withey and Johnson, won the scrimmage 36-28. But the real answers will come later.
“Even though rosters change at Kansas,” Self said, “Expectations don’t.”