Forgive Jamari Traylor if his memory is a little fuzzy. He’s a fifth-year senior. He’s had more than a dozen teammates or so during his years at Kansas. He’s been through this four times now, the early-season routine, the exhibition games, the season opener and a November trip to the Champions Classic, the marquee event that serves as college basketball’s unofficial national christening.
So as Taylor sat inside Allen Fieldhouse on Thursday afternoon, his mind drew a blank for a moment. As the topic of the Champions Classic came up, he could not recall last year’s showdown against Kentucky. He instead jumped back two years to a victory over Duke.
“We played against Duke and we won,” he said, correcting a question about Kentucky.
A moment later, it hit him: The 72-40 Kentucky demolition in Indianapolis. The brutal practice the next day. The loss that caused Kansas coach Bill Self to jokingly hope his postgame drink was premium vodka.
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“Ah yeah,” Traylor said. “As you can see, that’s not even in my head anymore.”
One year later, the Champions Classic looms once more. The Jayhawks will travel to face Michigan State in Chicago on Tuesday night. But first things first: Before No. 4 Kansas can find redemption on the floor of the United Center, a veteran team must first open the season at 7 p.m. Friday against Northern Colorado at Allen Fieldhouse.
Self believes his team is well positioned for the early tests that await. The Jayhawks return three starters and the roster is stocked with experience and maturity. As Kansas braces for the burden of being Final Four contenders, Self can lean on the steady scoring of senior forward Perry Ellis and the playmaking of junior guard Frank Mason.
Inside the locker room, Traylor says, the feeling is different. For the last two years, the Jayhawks have spent most of October and November breaking in freshmen who would be crucial to the cause. Two years ago, it was Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Mason. A year ago, it was Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander and Devonte’ Graham.
This year, there is less reliance on youth — in part, because freshman forward Cheick Diallo is still awaiting word from the NCAA Eligbility Center. The situation is not ideal — Self would prefer the problem of integrating a raw Diallo into the lineup — but it does mean that forward Carlton Bragg will be the only freshman in the rotation as the season begins. Which means the Jayhawks are hopeful to spring from the gates.
“I feel like we pretty much know everything,” Traylor says, “(We know) what coach is expecting.”
The stable of veteran players, Self says, manifested itself into some complacency during the preseason. It was, in some ways, Self says, like a type of boredom. Kansas’ players have been here before. The offseason — which included a trip to South Korea for the World University Games — was shorter. His players, Self said, appeared eager for the real thing.
“At times, it gets repetitive with an older team,” junior guard Wayne Selden agreed. “But we know what we have to do to focus in and really win games.”
Finally, the real thing is here. The Jayhawks will open the season Friday, head to Chicago three days later, then prepare for a three-game stint at the Maui Invitational the following week. Self is still learning about this particular group, still evaluating its strengths and flaws. But unlike recent years, there is plenty he already knows.
“This will be a whole different ballgame starting Friday,” Self said, “and certainly a totally different feel come Tuesday.”