Although Kansas’ first game of the season is set to tip off at Allen Fieldhouse on Friday evening against Tennessee State, most fan's minds are already wandering to the following Tuesday when Kansas takes on Kentucky in Chicago.
For the past seven years, Kansas has competed in the Champions Classic, a yearly early-season event that features Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Michigan State. While many fans see the event as a benchmark of how teams will perform heading into the season, Kansas coach Bill Self doesn’t think the game is as important as many make it out to be.
“It’s not like football, where if you lose a game in September it could affect your standing in December, it’s not like that,” Self said. “You have time to get it back, but certainly you want to get off to a good start. Last year, everybody thought we were up to a good start because we beat Duke — well, we also lost to Indiana.”
Kansas defeated Duke in the 2016 Champions Classic 77-75 after then-senior guard Frank Mason III made a short-range jumper with 1.8 seconds left to give the Jayhawks the win in Madison Square Garden.
The Kansas men's basketball team is accustomed to losing talent almost more often than they are to gaining new talent, but according to coach Bill Self, it just takes a bit of his "Kansas math" to offset this shift.
Sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot, who played three minutes in the win over Duke, still sees the early-season high-profile games as important in preparing to play in competitive environments.
“Every game that we play we want to compete in, that’s part of doing what we do,” Lightfoot said. “Every game is a dogfight, we’re ready to compete with each other and ultimately we want to win.”
Kansas has won just twice in the six previous Champions Classics, losing twice to Kentucky in that time. The second of those games came in 2014, when Kentucky blew Kansas out 72-40 — a game that Self jokingly says he doesn’t remember.
For Self, the Champions Classic gives his team a chance to see where it needs to improve heading forward.
“The biggest benefit is the things you can talk about in practice to get guys to understand," Self said. "You got to get guys to understand if they don’t get better at these things, then we can get exposed really bad, which has happened with us.”
The Kansan breaks down the upcoming games for the men's basketball team and analyzes three vital, upcoming conference games against TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State.
The result of the Champions Classic is no way the end-all, be-all for Self, with the 2013-14 season a huge indicator of that. The Jayhawks defeated Duke 94-83 in the 2013 Champions Classic, then went on to lose three of their next seven games against Villanova, Colorado and Florida.
And while all the focus is on Kentucky on Tuesday, Self still has his mind fully set on Friday’s showdown against Tennessee State. He believes that how the Jayhawks play against Tennessee State is just as important as their game against Kentucky.
“You can’t look ahead. People naturally do that, but players shouldn’t and coaches shouldn’t. If we’re going to have success playing Kentucky next Tuesday, the best way to have success is to have some momentum by playing well on Friday,” Self said. “So you’ve got focus in on the next one.”
Kansas will tip off against Tennessee State at 8 p.m. on Friday in Allen Fieldhouse, before traveling to Chicago for its showdown against Kentucky in United Center at 8:30 p.m Tuesday.