LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas coach Bill Self was asked not long ago about the Jayhawks’ early schedule, and he wryly gazed across the room at several school administrators and responded with his own question.
Few teams play tougher nonconference schedules than the third-ranked Jayhawks, which is a big reason their RPI is always among the best in the country. But they’ve taken it up a notch this year, playing No. 11 Indiana in their opener Friday night before facing top-ranked Duke on Tuesday.
Oh, and those two games will take place 5,000 miles apart.
"I think to get a couple of bluebloods to play, I think it will be a great game," said Self, whose Jayhawks face the Hoosiers in Honolulu before turning around to play the Blue Devils in New York.
Self may have poked fun at school officials for their brutal first week, but in reality he wouldn’t have it any other way. The game in Hawaii is part of the Armed Forces Classic, and roughly coincides with the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, while the game at Madison Square Garden is part of the Champions Classic doubleheader that also features second-ranked Kentucky and No. 14 Michigan State.
These are the kinds of games that top-rated recruits want to play, and the kind that give Kansas the national exposure it takes to reel them in.
"I mean, it’s hard. You play national, traditional powers, the league will be great, all these things," Self said. "But when it was brought to me to have a chance to play in kind of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and what that could mean from an educational standpoint with our guys and everything, I think that was something like, ‘Yeah, emotionally, we’ve got to do that.’"
Of course, then he realized how the flight itinerary would look.
"We’re taking three planes over there. We’ve got to take three planes back to New York. We can’t even travel together," Self said. "And it’s certainly not going to be easy coming back to play after that trip, and all we did was set ourselves up to have a tough opening start."
At least Spartans coach Tom Izzo can commiserate.
Michigan State plays No. 10 Arizona in the other part of the Armed Forces Classic on Friday night, then will take a similar trip to New York for its game against the Kentucky Wildcats.
In fact, the Spartans may have an even more daunting November than Kansas. They return from New York for two games at the Breslin Center and then three games in the Bahamas before visiting the Blue Devils in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
"We’ve never had a November where we played three or four top teams, opponents. This year we’re going to probably have a minimum of four," Izzo said. "I don’t know what that means. It means that we’re going to find out early exactly where we are, like we always do. The travel makes it a little more brutal, a little more concerning with the number of young guys."
Likewise, Hoosiers coach Tom Crean welcomes the challenge of facing the Jayhawks to start the year.
"We’re going to go against one of the hardest-nosed, toughest-minded, best-coached teams in the country," he said. "And really, what it does is it just kind of increases your urgency a little bit in the non-season. And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t reference one of those two teams at least four or five times in something that we’re doing."
Two teams? Oh, right. The Hoosiers wrap November by playing sixth-ranked North Carolina .
But the marquee nonconference matchups are part of college basketball’s appeal. Even a team that loses one — or all — of its high-profile games won’t hurt its chances of making the NCAA Tournament, while a similar loss or two in college football can end a team’s championship hopes.
Rather, the games serve as an early barometer for where a team stands, exposes flaws that can be addressed before league play and toughens teams up for the brutal grind of March.
"I think our guys will rally around that," Self said of the grinding start to the season, "and certainly, if they are fatigued, they won’t play fatigued."