Just before Saturday’s game, Kansas coach Bill Self had a conversation with freshman Billy Preston, telling him he needed to play bigger with center Udoka Azubuike unavailable.
The 6-foot-10 Preston followed with his top performance of the week, posting nine points and seven rebounds in KU’s 99-71 exhibition victory over Players Group at PalaSport gym.
“He made a couple of post moves instead of just living on the perimeter, although that’s still what he wants to do,” Self said. “I thought it was the best he’s played.”
Azubuike, who had been overpowering opponents in KU’s first two wins in Italy, remained at the team hotel because “he just didn’t feel good at all,” Self said. That left a bigger role for Preston, whom Self complimented for getting rebounds with two hands above the rim on a few occasions.
Preston also went to work down low. On one instance early in the third quarter, he received a pass in the lane before taking a power dribble, lowering his shoulder to clear space before reversing to score over his left shoulder.
It was quite a change from Thursday’s game, when Preston tried to avoid all contact with a baseline stepback that brought a tongue-lashing from Self.
The Jayhawks, as a whole, earned high marks from their coach, despite the fact that it was their smallest victory margin of the trip.
“We just didn’t make any shots,” Self said. “If we’d have made some shots — we went 4 of 19 from three (in the first half) — we would have really opened that up early on.”
The Jayhawks led 43-32 at halftime before pulling away.
“That was by far the best we’ve played, as far as playing the right way and moving the ball,” Self said. “We took care of the ball. The only thing we didn’t do was make shots, and we don’t rebound yet. But I do think we’ll become a pretty decent rebounding team.”
Lagerald Vick picked up MVP honors, scoring 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting. That was after he combined for 12 points in KU’s first two games.
“Just beating my man down the court, and my teammates were pitching the ball ahead,” Vick said. “I give credit to the team.”
KU competed in difficult conditions. PalaSport gym was not air conditioned and was especially stuffy with fans filling the arena to near capacity.
“I just can’t get over how hot it is,” Self said. “I mean, good gosh, it’s going to be close to 100 degrees in there, so for our guys to play as much as they did, I think their conditioning is pretty good.”
Malik Newman added 13 points while scoring in double figures for the third straight game.
KU will play its final Italy exhibition at noon Central Time on Sunday against Italy All Star A2, with Self saying Azubuike is doubtful to play.