Jayhawks eager to enjoy benefits of trip to Italy
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The timing could hardly have been better for Kansas coach Bill Self.
Every four years, the NCAA allows schools to embark on a foreign exhibition tour, and along with the games comes an opportunity to practice 10 times in preparation for it. Those additional practices usually give schools a jump on preparing for the regular season a couple of months later.
After losing AP Player of the Year Frank Mason III and Landen Lucas to graduation, first-round pick Josh Jackson to the NBA and backup forward Carlton Bragg Jr. to transfer, the Jayhawks will look much different from their Big 12 championship team when they depart for Italy on Monday.
"I'll be in a good mood the entire time, so I can't imagine the players not having a good time and enjoying themselves," Self said. "Even though we are going there to play ball, it's also kind of a reward trip. So, hopefully, we'll go over there and get a little bit better basketball-wise, but most of getting better basketball-wise is going to take place here, in Lawrence."
By that, Self means those practices that allow him to piece together his team.
Sure, the Jayhawks lost a quartet of important pieces from a team that went 31-5, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and eventually lost to Oregon in the Elite Eight. But that also means there will be six newcomers this season -- and eight if you count a pair of transfers who sat out last season.
There's a trio of freshmen headlined by four-star point guard Marcus Garrett and potential one-and-done forward Billy Preston. There is graduate transfer Jack Whitman, a forward from William & Mary who is eligible immediately. And there is former Mississippi State point guard Malik Newman and ex-Arizona State shooting guard Sam Cunliff, who should help the Jayhawks absorb the loss of Mason and Jackson.
Three more transfers -- brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson from Memphis and Charlie Moore from Cal -- will have to sit out this season but will also participate in the trip abroad.
In other words, there's a whole lot of new faces on the practice court at Allen Fieldhouse and a whole lot of chances for bonding.
"It's fun ... it's something new," Newman said. "There are more things that they are going through than just having the people around who you are used to. They have to learn us, we have to learn them. We have to try to 'mold as one.'"
The Jayhawks didn't have the same kind of turnover last year, when they returned the bulk of their roster. The only significant addition was Jackson, whose elite ability allowed him to fit in easily.
That's not to say there isn't still plenty of veteran presence.
Devonte Graham is poised to take the reins after a breakout junior season, while fellow senior Svi Mykhailiuk decided to remain in school after considering the draft.
Junior guard Lagerald Vick and sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot played plenty of minutes last season, and bruising 7-foot, 280-pound center Udoka Azubuike will be healthy after missing much of last season to injury.
"It's a good time to get everybody together and maybe put in some 'meat and potatoes' stuff," Self said, "But it's not going to be an intense deal like it would be during the regular season or a normal practice. I've learned that Devonte is still good, that Dok is still big, Lagerald is still athletic, but I don't really know much about the team."
Plenty of other programs are embarking on foreign trips, too.
Alabama is spending eight days in Canada, while fellow SEC schools Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Auburn are also heading abroad. Oklahoma is traveling to New Zealand and Australia, the same destination for the TCU men's and women's programs in mid-August.
"Things like this carry on into the season," Dedric Lawson said after a recent practice. "It builds chemistry with guys, builds trust, which are a part of winning as much off the court as on it."