Kansas’ performance against UNLV on Thursday night just might determine whether Bill Self resembles jolly ol’ St. Nick or Scrooge on Christmas Day.
“It’s usually more fun when you enter Christmas break having played well,” Self said in advance of the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks’ nonconference clash against the Runnin’ Rebels. Tipoff is 8 p.m. at Thomas & Mack Arena.
“The worst one I can remember is our first year here we go to Nevada and get waxed by Nevada. I didn’t want to talk to any player or anybody for a week or so. That was not the most pleasurable Christmas.”
He was referring to a 75-61 loss to the University of Nevada on Dec. 21, 2003 in Reno — a setback that even made his favorite holiday dish, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, taste bitter.
“There have been a lot of good ones,” Self said of Christmases that followed Kansas victories.
His Jayhawks are 10-3 in games immediately preceding Christmas break.
“We’ve had several teams that went home for Christmas emotionally before the game was actually played. We’ve had some teams that didn’t do that,” Self said. He will send his players packing to their hometowns following Thursday’s game with orders to return for practice the night of Dec. 26.
“We’ll emphasize with our team how important it is to keep some momentum going into the Christmas break.”
Kansas has lost to Nevada, Arizona (84-67 on Dec. 23, 2008 in Tucson) and Temple (77-52 on Dec. 22, 2014 in Philadelphia) in pre-Christmas lumps of coal.
Kansas has won games right before Christmas at California in 2010, at USC in 2011, at Ohio State in 2012 and at San Diego State last season. KU also has won pre-Christmas home games over Northern Colorado, Boston College, Miami of Ohio, Cal, Georgetown and Wisconsin-Milwaukee throughout the Self era.
Self isn’t worried about distractions in Vegas heading into Thursday night’s game.
“Vegas does have a lot of glitz and glamour they tell me,” Self said with a smile. “Where we are staying, the Renaissance (Hotel, which has no casino) … I’ve stayed there many times. That’s very limited, the glitz and glamour there at the Renaissance.
“This is a business trip. We’ll play a game and leave immediately after. This won’t be any different from going to Ames or Manhattan or Stillwater or Norman. It really won’t from our guys’ perspective. They’ll see the lights as we drive to the hotel. That will be about the only time they will,” he added of the bright lights of Las Vegas Boulevard.
Kansas, 10-1, will meet a 7-5 UNLV team that is rebuilding under first-year coach Marvin Menzies, who compiled a 198-111 record in nine seasons at New Mexico State. Menzies accepted the UNLV job on April 17, succeeding Chris Beard, who had a short tenure. He became UNLV coach on March 27 only to take over Texas Tech’s program on April 15.
“They lost a lot of guys from last year,” Self said of an 18-15 Rebels team coached last season first by Dave Rice, then by interim Todd Simon after Rice was fired on Jan. 10.
“Their starting point guard (Patrick McCaw) is with the (Golden State) Warriors. (Stephen) Zimmerman is with the (Orlando) Magic. (Derrick) Jones is in the Developmental League somewhere (now with Phoenix Suns after playing for the Suns’ D-League team). Their starting 4-man last year (Ben Carter) is at Michigan State. They had some really good guys and lost some guys. It’s a transitional period for them,” Self added.
Led by sophomore guard Jalen Poyser and senior forward Tyrell Green, the Rebels have defeated Southern Illinois (68-61 Monday in Vegas), as well as UC Riverside (74-62), Cal State Fullerton (77-68), Northern Arizona (110-71), Western Kentucky (71-61), Southern Utah (89-81) and Incarnate Word (92-64). UNLV has lost to Duke (94-45), Oregon (83-63), South Alabama (76-68), TCU (63-59) and Arizona State (97-73).
UNLV is 2-1 the last three games while playing without injured forwards Dwayne Morgan (shoulder) and Christian Jones (ankle).
“They’ll play zone. They’ll play man. They are capable of making shots. I think they are a dangerous team capable of giving us all sorts of problems,” Self said. “They’ve also been inconsistent. That’s not being negative. They have been. They’ve had some really good games. They’ve been all over the map. We’ve been inconsistent in some ways, too.”
This marks KU’s first game this season in an opponent’s arena.
Kansas lost to Indiana in Hawaii and beat Duke in New York and has played the rest of its games in either Allen Fieldhouse or Sprint Center. UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center holds 19,522 fans, though it was estimated that just 3,000 fans were in the stands for Monday’s game against Southern Illinois.
“I’m probably as excited about seeing how our team reacts in our first true road game. We’ve played away from home. This will be a little bit different,” Self said.
Kansas will meet TCU in the Big 12 opener on Dec. 30 in Fort Worth, Texas. The Jayhawks will play eight league games, then return to nonconference play to take on Kentucky on Jan. 28 in Lexington, Ky.