LAWRENCE (AP) — Rarely has there been a college basketball season that has been more anticipated in the Sunflower State than this one, which begins in earnest on Friday night.
Fifth-ranked Kansas, buoyed by one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, opens its season against UC-Santa Barbara with national title aspirations. The Jayhawks were bounced early in the NCAA tournament a year ago, and those who return have not forgotten it.
Drive south a couple hours and you come to No. 11 Wichita State, which will begin trying to replicate its perfect regular season from a year ago against New Mexico State. The Shockers will be led by preseason All-American Fred VanVleet and his trusty running mate, Ron Baker.
Then head back north a couple hours to get to Kansas State, which is also receiving votes in the Top 25. The Wildcats, who have been in the NCAA tournament in each of Bruce Weber’s first two seasons, will be led by sophomore guard Marcus Foster as they open against Southern Utah.
“It’s still early. We still have to figure things out right now,” Foster said. “We understand what it’s going to take to be a good team. We have to keep focusing on our goals and what we want to do. The pieces will come together and we don’t want to rush it.”
Still, all three schools are keenly aware of the importance of a quick start.
Take the Wildcats, for instance. They were stunned by Northern Colorado in their opener a year ago, and it took months before anybody took them seriously again.
“People forget about you when you lose that opening game,” Foster said. “It takes a lot to get the fans back and the media’s respect.”
The Wildcats lost a few veteran contributors, but the bulk of their scoring is back, a big reason why they’re predicted to finish near the top of the Big 12. But they must first navigate a non-conference schedule that includes a trip to the Maui Invitational in a couple of weeks.
Part of getting ready for that involves getting healthy.
Nino Williams, Malek Harris and Wesley Iwundu all watched the Wildcats’ exhibition game against Washburn with minor injuries, and Nigel Johnson dealt with cramps. Weber was hopeful that all of them will be able to play Friday night.
“First is to get guys healthy, second is to start figuring out roles,” Weber said. “We know what the roles are but it is them figuring it out and taking pride in their roles.”
The Jayhawks also understand the importance of a good start, though for an entirely different reason. They turn around and play top-ranked Kentucky next week in Indianapolis.
It’s a similar start to the season as last year, when the Jayhawks routed Louisiana-Monroe at Allen Fieldhouse and then beat then-No. 4 Duke in Chicago. But unlike last year, the Jayhawks hope any early success can be carried deeper into the season. Kansas won its 10th straight Big 12 title last year, but it also was stung by Stanford early in the NCAA tournament.
It was hardly the finish that Self expected with a roster that featured Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, two of the first three picks in the NBA draft.
“We’re obviously a much different team than what we were,” Self said. “Lost three quality guys. But we recruited fairly well and have four newcomers who we think will all be good players, and our returning guys have improved. So I think we’ll be a fun team to watch play.”
Among the newcomers are touted big man Cliff Alexander and athletic swingman Kelly Oubre, though it might be freshman point guard Devonte’ Graham whose play will be most critical.
Kansas has struggled to find consistent play at the position for years.
Speaking of point guards, one of the best in the nation is playing for the Shockers.
VanVleet showed off a dazzling handle and unparalleled vision last season, and this year will try to add some scoring punch. The Shockers lost Cleanthony Early to the NBA, so it will be up to VanVleet, Baker and the rest of the bunch to pick up the slack.
“We always hold ourselves to the highest standard,” VanVleet said, “trying to get deep into the tournament every year. We got a good group back, a bunch of guys that have never played. Right now, we’re trying to find the balance of mixing those guys in.”
Time is about to run out. The games start counting on Friday night.