KU coach Bill Self is glad to start the season, but also cautious at the same time.
“I am excited,” Self said. "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't play three games in one week like we’re doing right now. But this is like a Saturday, Big Monday game so it will be good for us to get used to it. The nervousness is that you're playing a team opening their season that returns their top seven or so scorers and they tied for their side of the league (Sun Belt West) last year. Orlando (Coach Early) has done a great job with this team. He was Sun Belt coach of the year last year. They play a lot of different ways. ...(Having just) a little preparation I think makes it a little bit more nervous, but we’re all excited to play.”
The Warhawks went 18-14 last season and 11-7 in Sun Belt play. They return 11 letter-winners and all five starters. ULM is loaded in the backcourt, led by junior Tony Hooper and seniors Jordan Payne, Jonas Brown and Lance Brasher. Freshman Sei Paye will also make an impact this season. The 5-11 Hooper led the team in scoring last season at 15.4 points per game, followed by Payne (12.4 ppg), Brown (12.3 ppg) and Brasher (10.4 ppg). Six-foot-seven junior forward Afam Nweke (team-best 6.9 rebounds per game) adds muscle up front.
“Obviously we are playing at some very good programs and will have to play our best in order to compete,” Early said. “Hopefully these games help us for when we get into our conference play this year. It is definitely going to challenge us mentally and physically and hopefully we emerge as a better team.”
With two exhibition games completed, Self said he doesn’t really have a good gauge of his team thus far. The Jayhawks won big both games (KU whipped Pittsburgh State, 94-59, on Nov. 1) and didn’t really run set plays in the halfcourt offense, basically getting all their scoring off the primary and secondary break.
"We haven’t had to operate with any duress,” Self said. “Even last night (against Fort Hays State), it was fine. There was nothing wrong with it, but it was 14-2 (to open the game), so there was never pressure on you that we got to score on this possession or we got to get a stop this possession, and the same way with our first exhibition game. You’re not under duress. Of course, in the real season, that’s not going to work that way. It’s how you operate under duress which will determine whether you have a good or great year.”
Despite not being tested, Self said some positives came out of the exhibition season.
“We had a chance to look at a lot of different people, look at different combinations and get some guys some confidence that maybe had been struggling at practice a little bit,” Self said. “There were a lot of good things that happened, but I don't know if it was the total package."
One guy that could be the total package this season is sophomore forward Darrell Arthur. He scored 20 points versus Fort Hays State and averaged a team-best 16 points per game in the two preseason games. (Sherron Collins at 15.0 ppg and Mario Chalmers at 14 ppg were the other two players who averaged in double figures.) Self just wants Arthur to continue progressing and gain a more killer instinct offensively.
“He’s just one of those guys, he wants to be a blend guy where I think he can take over more than he does,” Self said.
With the season officially underway Friday night, Self hopes his team will play with intensity and passion. However, he knows it’s a long season and “you’re not cutting down nets in November.” Above all, Self’s goal is for KU to “get better daily.”
“If we pass up a day to get better, then it's a bad day,” Self said. "Coach (Larry) Brown taught us (when Self served as a graduate assistant coach under Brown at KU in 1985-86) you should never talk about wins and losses. Of course, as coaches we do because that’s what we’re ultimately judged on. But with your team, you never talk about wins and losses. You talk about playing the way that you're supposed to play and executing the things that you are supposed to do. You've got to get better every day so that's how we’ll look at it.”<