LAWRENCE — It's not every year a big man as gifted as Oakland's Keith Benson comes out of the Summit League and onto the nonconference schedules of schools like Kansas.
With Benson on the Golden Grizzlies roster, Wednesday night's game against KU was no late November throwaway, despite the Jayhawks rolling to an 89-59 victory.
Benson represented the first true test of the season for KU center Cole Aldrich, who is predicted by some media outlets to be college basketball's best player by season's end. Benson is 6 feet, 11 inches and weighs 225 pounds, has nice touch with his outside shot and can score easily on the block. Last summer, he spent a few days at the Amare Stoudemire Skills Academy with Aldrich and 12 other top big men.
Aldrich and Benson going head to head presented a rare marquee player matchup this early in the season, and nobody in Allen Fieldhouse really could have understood how rare it was until Benson outscored Aldrich 10-2 in the first half and forced him into 1-of-7 shooting. Benson finished with 20, Aldrich with just 4.
KU coach Bill Self did not sugarcoat Aldrich's performance.
"Cole has gotten off to a bad start," Self said.
As always, Self offered some perspective on a player's struggles.
"It's a different deal for Cole," Self said. "Here's a guy that scored basically seven points his freshman year that anybody remembers. The next thing you know, he's a third-team All-American last year. But now, people are thinking he should be this, that, but it's a different feeling. He's never gone through that. He's never been a guy that's been expected to do this or that."
Even though Aldrich had a game to forget, the Jayhawks still handled Oakland 89-59, which says something about the makeup of this top-ranked team. Unlike last season, KU appears to be as strong on the wing as it is inside. Marcus Morris, a wing player moonlighting as a four-man in Self's system, had 19 points and 11 rebounds. Xavier Henry, as true a wing as you'll find in the college game, dropped 19 without blinking. They combined to make 14 of 21 shots.
So it didn't really matter, in the scope of this game against a solid Oakland team, that Benson thoroughly outplayed Aldrich. Of course, it may matter in the scope of the season if Aldrich can't fare better against NBA-caliber big men. Aldrich has improved greatly since this time last season, but his performance against Benson was not all that different from his play against lottery pick Jordan Hill last year at Arizona, when Hill outscored Aldrich 23-10 in a KU loss.
Aldrich's numbers against Benson — he made 2 of 10 shots, while Benson made 7 of 13 — could have just been the product of an unlucky start. Aldrich missed five chip-shot baskets to start the game and never really recovered. And it was all OK because Aldrich had lots of help.
Morris simply looked terrific. He was the definition of a matchup problem for Oakland's Will Hudson, so much so that Oakland eventually moved Benson to guard him. Morris hit a couple of turnaround jumpers, swished a three in a defender's face and drove the ball to get fouled and head to the free-throw line.
Henry continued to score with ease. He made 8 of 11 shots while grabbing five rebounds. He mixed in three alley oops with three three-pointers.
Morris' and Henry's consistent performances didn't help only Aldrich. It helped KU's other preseason All-American, Sherron Collins. For the first time this season, Collins looked like a true point guard, dishing out 7 assists and committing no turnovers. Collins had just 9 points on 4-of-7 shooting, and he was all smiles.
"It doesn't surprise me," Self said. "That kid wants to win. That kid wants to leave a legacy behind. He knows the only way you can do it is by winning."
Self believes that Aldrich, who is averaging just 10 points through four games, will come around soon.
"I think he's the best big man in the country," Self said. "He just hasn't played to that level yet. But he will."