Devonté Graham played 14 scoreless minutes as a freshman the last time Kansas faced Kentucky in the Champions Classic — a 72-40 loss on Nov. 18, 2014 in Indianapolis.
“It was just really a beatdown from the jump,” Graham said. “Ever since then, we come out with a different mindset of how we approach games like this. You can’t go in with a big head and think you’re all that.”
A more experienced Graham will enter Tuesday’s matchup between No. 4 KU and seventh-ranked Kentucky, which is set for an 8:30 p.m. tip at Chicago’s United Center.
The 6-foot-2 Graham believes he’s become an improved player since his first season.
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“I’m super confident. My IQ is way higher,” Graham said. “My aggressiveness offensively and defensively has gone up, and my leadership skills have definitely increased.”
Those improvements could have added importance in Tuesday’s game, as KU takes on a Kentucky team filled with talent but limited when it comes to big-game exposure.
The Wildcats, who started five freshmen in Sunday’s victory over Vermont, are on pace to be one of the youngest teams ever. Advanced stats expert Ken Pomeroy tracks a team’s experience — the average number of previous years played for each person on the court — and Kentucky’s 0.19 number so far ranks as the lowest mark in the last 12 seasons. That time span includes more than 4,000 teams.
KU coach Bill Self, though, isn’t certain how his team will handle the atmosphere either. Yes, Graham has played in prime-time games, along with returning guards Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick.
Still, Malik Newman hasn’t at KU. Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot only had limited minutes a year ago, while freshmen Billy Preston and Marcus Garrett just started their college careers.
“Even though we’re not as young as Kentucky — I’m not saying that at all — we’ve only got three guys that have ever been in the fire before too,” Self said. “I’m just as curious to see how we react to the bright lights as I’m sure what their staff is to see how their guys react.”
Both Graham and Self were quick to point out Kentucky’s athleticism. The Wildcats, who opened with two home victories, also only have one rotation player shorter than 6 feet 5.
“We know we’ve got to be locked in defensively,” Graham said, “and try to contain their dribble-drive penetration.”
The good news for both teams is that a win or loss shouldn’t affect long-term goals. An example: That KU team that lost by 32 to Kentucky three years ago still rebounded to become a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“The biggest thing from a positive standpoint: You’re playing against quality people where you can be exposed to certain things that you know you’ve got to get better at,” Self said. “Sometimes you get a false sense of who you are when you don’t have a chance to play against quality competition like this.”
Graham is hoping that, on this night, KU’s maturity will be beneficial.
“They’re young,” Graham said of Kentucky. “So we’ll try to make them face a little bit of adversity early to see how they can handle it.”