Bill Self leaned against his black roller bag Sunday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, pausing after he was asked what he was anticipating most during his team’s trip to Italy.
“I hadn’t really thought about it, but I’d say the food’s high on the list,” said Self, Kansas’ 15th-year men’s basketball coach, with a smile. “I think seeing the Vatican and the Colosseum, to me, is what I’m probably thinking are two of the coolest things we do. But I don’t know anything about the excursions that we’ve got set up.”
As one might expect, Self’s main focus leading up to the weeklong trek has been basketball, as his team completed its allotment of 10 summer practices Sunday.
The upcoming four games — Aug. 2 and 3 in Rome and Aug. 5 and 6 in Milan — could present some challenges. Self has been told there is no air conditioning at the Italian gyms, meaning heat and perspiration could cause issues in a country where highs are expected over 100 degrees the next six days.
“I’m hopeful the guys can all play around 20 (minutes), and then we’ll see what happens,” Self said. “Winning is always important, but that’s not the main emphasis in going over there obviously.”
Self believes that many of his team’s newcomers could benefit from getting extra playing time together. That includes guard Malik Newman, who transferred from Mississippi State last year and is expected to be one of KU’s leading scorers this season.
“I’m excited about all of it,” Newman said. “I’ve never been to Italy. I hear it’s a great place. I’m just ready to get out there, have fun and explore.”
Center Udoka Azubuike and forward Mitch Lightfoot also could accelerate their development after getting limited playing time last season, while Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe will get a chance to briefly play with new teammates before officially becoming eligible in December.
Two other players Self will be watching closely are freshmen Billy Preston and Marcus Garrett.
Self admits he has challenged Preston, a top-10 recruit from Los Angeles, in early workouts.
“I think Billy’s really talented — really talented,” Self said. “I think that he’s never been forced to play with the consistent effort and focus that he needs to.”
At this point, Self describes Preston’s progress as often “two steps forward, one step back,” though the coach isn’t discouraged by that.
“He’s definitely moving in the right direction, but I think it’s frustrating for him, because he’s thinking instead of playing,” Self said. “He still hasn’t let it go. He still hasn’t let it go to play with reckless abandon.”
Garrett, meanwhile, has made a quick impression on Self because of his unselfishness. The 6-foot-5 guard — ranked 38th in his class by Rivals — could be a versatile player in this year’s rotation.
“He can play 1-4 (positions). He can switch ball screens. He’s tough. He’s a willing passer,” Self said. “And he knows that he can shoot, but he knows that some guys can shoot it better. Very mature.”
Self says Garrett ranks among the top freshmen he’s had when it comes to intangibles.
“He’s figured out how he can make the team better, and it fits Devonté (Graham) and it fits Malik and it fits Lagerald (Vick) and Doke (Udoka Azubuike),” Self said. “Whereas some people, the way they think they can make the team better doesn’t fit those guys. The object for these young kids is to make sure our best players play better when they’re in the game.”
Garrett also could fit KU’s “small-ball” lineup, as he profiles as one of the team’s best options to help with post defense.
“Somebody’s got to be able to guard the other team’s 4 man,” Self said, “and he’s tough enough that I think he can be more than adequate doing that.”
KU is set to arrive in Rome at 10:50 a.m. Central time Tuesday. The team will take a bus trip to the Colosseum on Wednesday morning before playing its first game against Stella Azzurra on Wednesday night (11:30 a.m. Central time).