No. 6 Kansas men’s basketball will open its season against No. 1 Gonzaga in the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off Thursday.
Thursday’s matchup will mark the first game played by either team since the 2019-20 postseason was shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kansas has won its last two meetings with No. 1 teams, including last season's 64-61 win over Baylor on Feb. 22, and a 77-75 win over Duke in the Champions Classic on Nov. 15, 2016. The Jayhawks are 9-16 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams, and 4-2 under Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self.
Thursday’s game will also mark just the second meeting between Kansas and Gonzaga, with the Jayhawks winning the first matchup 80-66 on Nov. 13, 1998.
Even though these rosters don't have much familiarity, Kansas will still see a familiar face on the Gonzaga bench Thursday, as former Kansas guard Evan Manning is a graduate assistant for the Bulldogs. Manning is also the son of former Kansas player and assistant coach Danny Manning.
Kansas will have to watch out for 6-foot-5 junior guard Andrew Nembhard, who was cleared to play by the NCAA this week after transferring from Florida. Nembhard led the SEC with a 2.2 assist/turnover ratio last season, averaging 5.6 assists per game. He also averaged 11.2 points per game last season.
“[Gonzaga] is good,” Self said during a media availability on Monday. “But the thing about it is, [Gonzaga is] a different team. You had three legitimate NBA-caliber guys [last season]. They played through their bigs a lot last year. Of course, their perimeter is really, really good."
"I love their personnel," Self continued. "This is a loaded team.”
Another Gonzaga player to keep an eye will be senior forward Corey Kispert, who shot 47.4% from the floor and 43.8% from three-point range last season. Kispert is also the Bulldog’s top returning scorer, and will be a difficult matchup for this Kansas defensive unit led by senior guard Marcus Garrett, the 2019-20 Naismith Defensive Player of Year.
“I feel like we’re ready,” Garrett said. “We’ve been practicing a long time. I think that we’re finally tired of playing against each other. We’re just ready to go out there and compete.”
Offensively, Kansas will look to create opportunities in the paint, particularly through junior forward David McCormack. The Jayhawks will still share the ball plenty this season, but McCormack will be a focal point.
“Each night [this season] you could see someone different [scoring],” sophomore guard Christian Braun said Monday. “[McCormack] will be steady for us, he’s a good offensive inside presence for us.”
The Jayhawks will also have a new look to their jerseys this season, with a patch that reads “United We Stand," signifying the program's support of social justice movements throughout the United States. The patch was designed by Agbaji and McCormack, who explained the significance of the patch in a video on social media Wednesday.
"We still have Kansas across our chests and we're playing for Kansas, but we're also standing for something greater."𝗨𝗡𝗜𝗧𝗘𝗗 𝗪𝗘 𝗦𝗧𝗔𝗡𝗗 ⬎ pic.twitter.com/7NfGs9MkMp— Kansas Jayhawks (@KUAthletics) November 25, 2020
"We're playing for something bigger than our program," Agbaji said in the video.
Self said Monday he expects Agbaji, McCormack, Braun and Garrett to start for Kansas against Gonzaga. Self has not named a fifth starter as of Wednesday.
Braun — who will make his sixth career start Thursday — said he has confidence in his ability to come out strong against the Bulldogs.
“Just to expand on what I did last year," Braun said. "I’m super confident in what I do always and hopefully I get to hit a lot of threes this year."
Kansas will face Gonzaga on Thanksgiving Day at 12:30 p.m.