The basketball was flying back toward midcourt, its flight path redirected by the wide, racquet-sized palms of Cliff Alexander. Emporia State’s Terrence Sardin had driven hard into the lane and attacked the basket. And there stood Alexander, Kansas’ 6-foot-8 freshman forward, ready to swat it in the other direction.
Moments later, Alexander followed the play, sprinting down the middle of the floor. Kansas guard Frank Mason flipped the ball toward the rim, and Alexander corralled the pass before flushing a one-handed slam. Alexander flexed his biceps and pointed at his chest. Allen Fieldhouse came to life. Kansas coach Bill Self flashed a wide smile and leaned back in his seat.
It was midway through the second half on Tuesday night, and Kansas was on its way to a 109-56 victory over Emporia State, a final exhibition blowout before the lights come on for real on Friday night.
“When the popcorn is popping,” Kansas sophomore Brannen Greene said, “it’s a little bit different. It’s not the same as practice.”
For Kansas, the popcorn will begin to pop fresh on Friday, when UC Santa Barbara comes to Allen Fieldhouse for the Jayhawks’ season opener. But for Alexander, this was a second-half moment that was worth at least a few kernels.
It was one moment from a fragmented game, a night of experimentation as more than 11 KU players played at least 10 minutes and eight Jayhawks scored in double figures. But it helped explain, partly at least, why Self was mildly frustrated just one day earlier.
On Monday afternoon, Self had stood at Allen Fieldhouse and verbalized the growing pains of a young team. In one week, the Jayhawks were set to depart for Indianapolis for a showdown with No. 1 Kentucky at the Champions Classic. And Self was still concerned with some of his freshmen.
“It’s hard to play guys if they don’t know what you’re trying to do,” Self said then, “the simplest of things.”
In other words, Alexander and his young teammates are still learning the intricacies of the Kansas system. And this was partly why Alexander, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes, was the last Jayhawk big man off the bench Tuesday night.
“I think those other (big) guys probably deserved to play,” Self said, “at least on the last couple of practices.”
To hear Self tell it, Alexander has much to learn. But then there are stretches like that one in the second half, when Alexander throws down four dunks in 2 minutes to spark a 33-11 run. And this much becomes clear: At some point, it will be probably be hard to keep Alexander off the floor.
“That’s just who he is,” junior forward Jamari Traylor said. “He’s a dog.”
Tuesday’s final exhibition, though, was less about the final result and more about serving as a 40-minute evaluation session for Self and his staff. After the season opener Friday comes Kentucky next Tuesday. And with little separation in the rotation thus far, Self used Tuesday night to tinker with lineups and explore possible rotations. During the first month of practice, Self has looked for separation at practice. It hasn’t always been there.
It’s clear that certain players — sophomore guard Wayne Selden and junior forward Perry Ellis, for instance — will play major minutes. But after that, Self still has questions.
“I want to look at different guys,” Self said. “There hasn’t been a lot of separation, but I do feel like that there’s been a little bit the last two or three days.”
He added: “I still see us playing nine or 10 guys — at least early on.”
On Tuesday, freshman guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk got the start in the backcourt alongside Selden and Frank Mason. But by the opening possession of the second half, Self had called on sophomore Brannen Greene to play with a starting lineup that also featured Ellis and junior forward Jamari Traylor.
Greene, who suffered a concussion during the first exhibition against Washburn, finished with 10 points while hitting two of four from three-point range. Mykhailiuk made just one of five from outside while playing 18 minutes.
“There definitely hasn’t been much separation from the guard standpoint,” Greene said. “We’re all right around the same area. He’s still trying different rotations, but it’s early in the preseason. That’s how it should be.”
Sophomore forward Landen Lucas performed well, finishing with 13 points and four rebounds in 12 minutes — though he also finished with four fouls. Self also complimented junior forward Hunter Mickelson, who finished with 11 points and four rebounds before fouling out.
And for the second straight game, freshman guard Devonte’ Graham (10 points) displayed a steady hand at point guard, facilitating offense and controlling the tempo.
“I thought we looked more cohesive,” Self said, “the ball moved pretty good. We looked semi-organized at times.”
On Tuesday, this was about as much praise as Self was willing to hand out. The Jayhawks played fine, he said, but the real stuff comes on Friday.
“Immediately after the game,” Greene said, “Coach told us what was coming.”