Bill Self was livid.
Maybe he didn’t expect Kansas’ season opener against Louisiana-Monroe to spark this much angst and emotion. But five minutes into the second half on Friday night, with Kansas still struggling to pull away, freshman point guard Frank Mason was whistled for his third foul of the game.
The contact was minimal, the call perhaps questionable. And maybe Self was just growing impatient with his young team’s inconsistencies. But as Self ripped into the official on the sideline, Allen Fieldhouse began to come to life.
“I didn’t do it to fire up the crowd,” said Self, who conceded he probably deserved a technical. “I did it because I thought that it was a bad call.”
Moments later, the crowd came to its feet, and No. 5 Kansas pieced together a 15-5 run that finally provided some breathing room in an 80-63 victory on opening night.
“It’s definitely fire,” KU freshman Wayne Selden said. “It definitely fuels the tank for us.”
So perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be this laborious. Maybe Kansas wasn’t supposed to be holding a six-point lead with just over 15 minutes left, a little more drama than expected.
This was supposed to be Andrew Wiggins’ Kansas debut, a nice little warmup for the Jayhawks’ showdown with No. 4 Duke on Tuesday in the Champions Classic in Chicago.
But here it was, an imperfect start befitting of a young team still finding its way. Wiggins showed more signs of his precocious talent, finishing with a team-high 16 points and three rebounds on five-of-nine shooting. But there were quiet moments, too, like a stretch in the first half when Wiggins went scoreless for nearly 14 minutes after a layup in the opening minute. But in the moments after the game, Self mentioned that Wiggins had led KU in shot attemps after two exhibition games and his regular-season debut.
“That’s a positive,” Self said. “Because I’m kind of trying to force him to do that. But I thought he did some good things offensively, without question, tonight. It’s a hard game to play. It’s a fragmented game.”
Some of this was to be expected. Kansas was playing without starting point guard Naadir Tharpe, who served a one-game suspension for playing in an unsanctioned pro-am game in Chicago last summer.
Mason started in place of Tharpe, and when he picked up two quick fouls in the opening five minutes, the Jayhawks were forced to go with freshmen Conner Frankamp and Selden at the point guard spot for the rest of the half.
It wasn’t a smooth transition. Eight turnovers and some choppy offense later, Kansas led just 42-32 at halftime.
All that depth that we’ve heard so much about? The Basketball Gods made sure it was tested early.
“For us to play without Frank and Naadir,” Self said, “we haven’t even practice that way.”
Sophomore guard Andrew White III came off the bench and finished with 12 points, draining three of five from three-point range.
On the whole, it was hard to find unfiltered positives in a game that featured 58 total fouls and 72 free-throw attempts, more side effects of new rules that limit hand-checking and perimeter contact.
“I can’t determine if it’s good for us or bad for us,” Self said of the rules. “I know it’s bad to watch.”
But even amidst the rugged pace, Wiggins appeared to open up his offensive repertoire, hitting two of four from three-point range. He didn’t come close to the KU freshman record for points in a debut — Xavier Henry had 27 points in 2009 — but a steal and dunk with two minutes left put a punctuation mark on the victory.
“I’d like for all our guys to be more aggressive,” Self said, “but he did some good things. I think he can be more aggressive, but I also think that all the guys can be more aggressive.”
Now comes Duke, the long-awaited test in Chicago. After Kansas finished off its victory, someone told Self that Duke had blitzed Davidson 111-77 earlier in the night. If it wasn’t already obvious, it was clear: An imperfect performance might not cut it against Duke.
“It will be good for our guys to play the game,” Self said. “I think we have a pretty good feel of who we are right now. We’ll have a better feel after Tuesday.”