Kansas outruns EA Sports

Some of my notes from the early moments of Tuesday night's opening exhibition game of Kansas' 2003-04 season read as you might imagine:

"Sloppy. Turnover-prone—five in the first seven minutes. Mystifying shot selection. Minimal ball movement and worse movement without the ball. Lazy defense. Looks like a glorified pickup game."

Can I get a witness?

Funny, but after the Jayhawks had collectively hunkered down and exerted just enough pressure and just enough playmaking to overcome the free-wheeling, three-pointer-wielding EA Sports All-Stars, 91-87, after the sold-out Allen Fieldhouse phlock had expelled a big, fat sigh of relief, I scribbled a few more notes.

At the end of it all, I wrote the words: "Poised. Never seemed to doubt they'd win. Competitive. The experience of back-to-back Final Fours, anyone?"

As for first-year KU coach Bill Self, whose parents had driven up from Oklahoma to watch their son orchestrate his first game from the Kansas bench, the contest unfolded just as he might have hoped. With, perhaps a couple of exceptions—junior Keith Langford missed the game because of soreness in his right knee (nothing serious, Self assured), and senior Jeff Graves was five minutes late to the Phog, which meant he began the game on the bench, with freshman David Padgett getting the start.

Other than those hiccups, Self liked the way his team was challenged and how it responded, ultimately.

"I think tonight couldn't have been scripted much better," Self said. "We've been talking about how we're not going to be a team that just tries to outscore people. Well, we almost got our butts beat by just trying to outscore people. And we talked about how important defensive transition is and doing this and doing that. Granted, we've only practiced 14 times so I don't think you're supposed to be in midseason form, but there are a lot of things we can improve on."

In other words, Self and his staff have plenty of teaching points to glean from this exercise. Not that he didn't see things about his team that he liked, as well, because he did.

"There were some great things," he said. "We competed hard. We're down 10 in the second half with nothing going on and guys come back and compete when they (EA) were on fire. It wasn't like they quit playing.

"We can eliminate carelessness. We can eliminate a lot of things, but one thing I did like was I thought we competed hard even though we didn't play great."

Self jokingly wondered out loud who had scheduled those guys—EA Sports clanged its first seven three-point attempts from the international-distance line, then microwaved the nets the rest of the way, spinning in 16 of 26. Particularly devastating was Mike Brownlee, a former College of Charleston standout who netted seven of 11 treys and finished with a game-high 26 points.

That helped the All-Stars take a 40-33 lead into halftime. Self, who displays an unflappable, composed demeanor on the sideline, was more expressive behind closed doors with his team.

"Coach emphasized defense at halftime," explained junior Wayne Simien. "We were giving up a lot of shots in our defensive transition, and it is something that we are going to have to work on the next few weeks. He jumped on us pretty good. Then again, he wanted us to keep our poise, show toughness and be able to come back because there probably will be more times this season when we are down at halftime."

Self also emphasized that he wanted his team to pound the ball inside. He was disappointed that the Jayhawks seemed content to take jump shots in a mostly lethargic and sloppy first half.

Message received.

Simien, who was scoreless with three rebounds in the first half, scored KU's first six points of the second half and finished with 14 points and seven boards. Simien's frontcourt mates, Padgett and Graves, tallied 16 and 11 points respectively. Leading the way for Kansas was junior guard Aaron Miles, who dished seven assists against just two turnovers, and hit eight of 10 field goal attempts for 18 points, 12 of them in the second half.

Self's praise, though, went primarily to two other guards: sophomore Jeff Hawkins, who he called his player of the game because of the havoc he created defensively; and junior Michael Lee, who scored eight points in the second half and 11 overall, most memorably six points in a late 10-0 run that saw Kansas rally from down 74-72 into a 82-74 lead. Hawkins also buried a critical, long jumper with just under a minute to play that shoved KU's lead to 88-82. The Jayhawks shot 72 percent in the final 20 minutes—many baskets coming on layups, dunks and short shots following defensive stops and steals. That helped the home team outscore the visitors 58-47.

That didn't impress Self too much. "You shoot 72 percent in a half and you should win, and we barely did," he said.

Ultimately, as Lee noted, the game provided a barometer of progress not only for the coaching staff, but also for the players.

"Buying into coach Self's system," Lee said, "has been a tug of war, but we're going to get it done."

Self concurred, emphasizing that he was happy to get a win and more importantly, a picture of where his team was at this juncture.

"We are not going to be a team that hangs 90 on everybody every night," Self said. "We have to understand it is important to guard, get stops, execute the halfcourt.

"To me in the first half, when we went dull, the post guys should have touched the ball every possession. Instead, we came down and shot it every time. It's what they've done in the past, but they also had lottery picks shooting those shots.

"'m not saying we don't have good players. It's just a little different. We need to grow into that."

The Jayhawks have now won 18 consecutive home exhibition games. Next Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. in Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas will battle Pittsburg State in its second and final exhibition.

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