Kansas senior point guard Devonté Graham spoke to his teammates on Tuesday after the third and final game of the 2017-18 exhibition season.
“I said in the locker room, ‘It’s finally here,’” Graham, the Big 12’s preseason player of the year, said of a highly-anticipated regular season, which opens at 8 p.m. Friday against Tennessee State in Allen Fieldhouse.
“All the exhibition games are behind us. Now we’ve got to do it, handle business.”
Graham is the best bet to take over as go-to guy duties after the departure of national college player of the year Frank Mason. Graham averaged a team-leading 19.3 points and 6.0 assists plus 5.3 rebounds per game in exhibition wins over Missouri (93-87), Pittsburg State (100-54) and Fort Hays State (86-57). He scored 27 points and dished eight assists against Fort Hays.
“I trusted Frank, and I certainly trust Devonté. I never thought about trust ratings,” Self said with a smile when asked if he trusts both about the same. “But I would say it’s pretty comparable.
“I would say last year was probably a little bit easier to trust Frank because you had Devonté. This year you trust Devonté, but there are still some unknowns out there with some other guys. Yeah, I trust Devonté as much as I’ve trusted any guard that we’ve had here,” Self added.
No doubt this is Graham’s team as much as it was Mason’s a year ago.
“I think people look at it a little bit different than I do,” Self said. “I’m not sure we pass the torch from Frank to Devonté from a leadership standpoint. I think we passed the keys to him. But I think that Devonté has always been a great leader.
“I think potentially he’s as good a leader as we’ve had because people respect his talent, they respect his work ethic. He’s got personality, and he can talk. If you go back and look at Frank, everybody respected his talent, everybody respected his toughness, but that dude never said anything. I really think Devonté has the potential to be as good a leader as we’ve had.”
Graham, a 6-foot-2, 185-pounder from Raleigh, N.C., said he’s ready to go to battle with this team, which first semester consists of eight eligible scholarship players and two walk-ons.
“Every year, new faces come in, expectations remain the same, so we’ve just got ‘next man up,’” Graham said. “I feel we have a nice little mix of new and old, guys who have been here and played in big games and guys who haven’t for the most part.”
Self said he envisioned continuing to go with a four-guard, one-big starting lineup of Graham, Malik Newman, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike. Asked who will run the show when Graham is taking a breather, Self said: “That’s a great question because Malik could initiate. I think Lagerald’s probably the best equipped to initiate. But I think it will just work out a lot better if Devonté doesn’t foul and he doesn’t get tired. I think that will probably be the thing that gives me the most confidence.
“But that’s a good point. We’ll do it by committee. I’ve always thought we should play positionless, and that’s the way we’ve always coached it and tried to recruit it. I think that’s certainly the case with us. But we do need to have somebody that can be a back-up initiator without question. I think it still remains to be seen who would be the best at that.”
Self said his players should have no trouble focusing on Friday’s game against Ohio Valley Conference school Tennessee State, which returns two starters off a 17-13 team, even though a huge contest vs. Kentucky looms on Tuesday in Chicago.
“It’s the first one. Everybody should be jacked and excited about playing,” Self said. “But still though, you can be exposed very easily if they do things that you haven’t really prepared for. It’s hard to have everything in. I mean, it’s hard to have everything in this early.
“You’ve got to take care of the business at hand, and the business at hand is certainly Tennessee State. Knowing you’re going to go against a quick, athletic team that will put pressure on you that really defends and you’ve got to move the ball and bodies in order to get good shots because you’re not going to get good shots when you play on the first side. So guys got to understand that.
“So hopefully we will, and that will put us in a position to become a better team. We need to become a better team Friday and not worry about Tuesday yet.”