In some ways, Kansas coach Bill Self is just like you. Basketball practice can turn repetitive and stale when you spend a month in the gym with the same players. You run the same plays, guard the same players, and go over the same core philosophies.
When your team features six freshmen, there’s only so much you can learn on the practice court.
So as Kansas begins its two-game exhibition schedule against Pittsburg State at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Allen Fieldhouse, Self will finally have a chance to see how his team reacts under the lights and stress of a real game.
“I want to see how guys react in different situations,” Self says.
For different players, this could mean different things. But let’s consider freshman Andrew Wiggins, who’ll make his unofficial debut as the Jayhawks’ starting small forward.
Self has watched Wiggins progress plenty over the last few months, from a coltish top recruit to a kid who is starting to grasp the Kansas system. For now, though, Self would like to see Wiggins learn how — and when — to assert himself on offense.
“When you tell young kids to be aggressive, they’re thinking, ‘Well, he wants me to go score,’” Self says. “Yeah, I do, but you don’t have to score with three guys hanging on you. That’s the kind of stuff that we need to get good at.”
That goes for all of KU’s six-man freshman class, which will feature two starters in the season’s opening weeks. Wiggins will start alongside freshman guard Wayne Selden on the wing, while junior point guard Naadir Tharpe, sophomore forward Perry Ellis and senior forward Tarik Black are expected fill out the starting lineup against Pitt State.
While certain spots could be in flux, Self says a rotation of eight players has separated itself during the first month of practice. Sophomore wing Andrew White III has established himself as the first guard off the bench, while freshman center Joel Embiid and sophomore forward Jamari Traylor both project to play major minutes in the post. The talent is abundant, but the KU players are still learning.
“Just over time, it’s gonna click,” Ellis says. “Everybody is learning. We’ve got a lot of new faces also, so just over time, it’ll start clicking.”
In most years, Self would use his exhibition games to expand the bench and experiment with different lineups. But this year, with so many unknowns among his core, he wants to get Wiggins and his starters as many reps as possible.
“Those guys need to get some ample minutes,” Self said, “because they haven’t played that much.”
A quick glance at the schedule provides a reminder that Kansas is just two weeks away from a Nov. 12 showdown with Duke at the Champions Classic in Chicago. And that puts a little added emphasis on these two exhibition games. The basketball education of Wiggins and his fellow freshmen is just beginning, but a crucial exam is coming early.
Self has tried to temper expectations surrounding Wiggins, who could be the best prospect to enter the college game since Kevin Durant arrived at Texas or Derrick Rose enrolled at Memphis. Part of that is by design, but Self also makes it clear that some young players progress faster than others.
“Should we expect him to be a great one? Yes, we should,” Self said. “But we also need to understand that it took Derrick Rose a little time to get into a flow. It’s taken some kids some time to get in some flow. I’m hoping it doesn’t with him, but if it does, it’s certainly not in any way, shape or form a downer — or an indication of who he’s going to be as a player.”
The same could be said about KU as a team. In some ways, Self is still learning about his guys. For the last month, he’s tried to keep it relatively simple in practice, mostly focusing on his team’s identity. After Pitt State, he’ll know a little more.
“We’ve taken more time to do meat-and-potato stuff,” Self says, “(We’ve taught the) nuts and bolts of who we are and what we like to do.”