It was supposed to be a friendly tune-up, a night when Kansas rolled a Division II opponent while moving a day closer to the regular season.
Instead, KU’s 100-54 victory over Pittsburg State turned into a preview of what’s to come for fans in the 2017-18 season: moments of exhilaration combined with continuous unease — the result of roster construction unlike any other in coach Bill Self’s 15 seasons.
To be clear: KU showed its immense talent for long stretches. Lagerald Vick skied for putback dunks, and Udoka Azubuike bruised his way to points and rebounds inside. Devonté Graham made good decisions, while Marcus Garrett showed defensive potential with deflections and steals.
As good as the Jayhawks looked, though, they were this close to disaster in the second half.
KU forward Billy Preston, on a drive, collided heads with a Pitt State defender. He remained down for a couple minutes, and one could sense in the silence what was going through minds at Allen Fieldhouse.
What, exactly, would KU do if this was a serious injury? What would happen if the Jayhawks had only two big men available (instead of three) and eight scholarship players this season (instead of nine)?
Guard Malik Newman admitted to quickly wondering about those scenarios.
“Especially with a big, because we only have a three-big rotation,” Newman said. “With him going down, you kind of look at those (other) two as … ‘Do we play them together? Do we just go back to four-guard (offense) or what?’”
This all turned out to be unneeded panic — at least for now. Preston returned to the bench with 11:45 left, and though he didn’t re-enter the game, Self reported afterwards that he “got a bump on the noggin” and was expected to be a part of KU’s next practice Thursday.
It still opened up a rabbit hole that could continue if you wanted it to.
Mitch Lightfoot’s wearing a knee brace already … is that just a precautionary thing? Hey, walk-on Clay Young had a nice perimeter pass and drive to the basket … could he be an emergency post option if needed?
There also was this: Self played both Lightfoot and Azubuike during KU’s final four minutes while leading by more than 50. The coach said part of the reason was to get Azubuike in better shape, but playing the only two bigs left on the roster in garbage time doesn’t seem like something that should — or will — be repeated in the future.
If we’re being honest, KU probably could use another walk-on or two for blowout situations. Maybe a football player as well ... anything to extend a bench with three ineligible transfers and one scholarship that isn’t being used following Jack Whitman’s departure.
This roster could easily work out just fine for KU. The 2012 team didn’t have much depth — former walk-ons Conner Teahan and Justin Wesley were two of the first reserves — and it was able to advance to the national championship game while thriving with that short rotation.
The Jayhawks, if nothing else, appeared to survive Tuesday’s scare. That’s one game down, about 38 to go — with undoubtedly more close calls to come.