Hoosiers open against Jayhawks and nation’s top recruit
HONOLULU — Kansas must venture to Hawaii for its season opener, but anticipation over the debut of Josh Jackson will not let attention wander.
Rated as the No. 1 recruit as part of an incoming national class loaded with talent, Jackson is an addition the Jayhawks hope will enable them to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2012.
That is the biggest goal entering a season in which Kansas is expected to rule the Big 12 again and tie the all-time Division I record of 13 consecutive conference championships set by UCLA from 1967-79.
But first things first as the season begins Friday in the Armed Forces Classic against reigning Big Ten champion Indiana.
The opener will be followed by a game Tuesday against top-rated Duke at the Champions Classic in New York.
Hardly an easy start for any freshman, including Jackson, whose position is hard to define.
"I’m just easing my way in, just trying not to think about making too many mistakes," Jackson said after playing four different positions in the second of two exhibition games the Jayhawks played.
"Just going out and trying to play basketball. It’s just a game. I really enjoy playing each and every position. So, coming up this year, I think you guys will see me in a bunch of different positions."
If he provides the expected impact, the No. 3 Jayhawks should be quite formidable. They return one of the most experienced sets of small guards in America.
Bullish senior Frank Mason never shies away from contact underneath and came within one assist of a triple-double in the Jayhawks’ first exhibition. Junior Devonte’ Graham was the most outstanding player in last year’s Big 12 Tournament when he was regarded as the most improved player on a 33-5 squad that bowed out in the Elite Eight against eventual NCAA champion Villanova.
Each dealt with minor ailments in exhibition games — Mason, a jammed thumb and sore shin; Graham, with cramping.
"We have to get (Graham) to where he can play 30-plus (minutes) along with Frank. That’s key for us," said Bill Self, who enters his 14th season as Kansas coach.
Indiana was a blueblood that started poorly last season. A difficult opening stretch included a 1-2 mark at the Maui Invitational and a 20-point loss to Duke in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Yet the Hoosiers went 15-3 in the Big Ten and finished 27-8 with a loss to eventual NCAA runner-up North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
Sophomore forward OG Anunoby came on late for the Hoosiers and should easily surpass the 13.7 minutes he averaged, while contributing in all areas.
"He’s a great example," said Indiana coach Tom Crean, "of somebody that’s getting better constantly, understands that it all starts with what you do with your defensive mindset and how important it is to make the game easier for everybody else."
Others must seamlessly fit into the Hoosiers’ rhythmic ball movement, particularly after losing All-Big Ten point guard Yogi Ferrell.
Pittsburgh transfer Josh Newkirk will step into that spot after recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee. Crean estimates Newkirk’s vertical jump has improved seven to eight inches since arriving at Indiana, then healing.
Another guard, junior James Blackmon, recovered from an injured knee that limited him to 13 games last year. He offers scoring pop, and high expectations exist for 6-10 sophomore center Thomas Bryant, who was a 68.3 percent shooter last season.
"We don’t just want to be a good offensive team," cautioned Bryant. "We want to be defensive, as well."