When Bill Self and his Kansas Jayhawks take to the court tonight they will have an early season opportunity that every coach loves to have. Right now the Jayhawks are ranked 11th in the Nation, they are picked to once again win the Big 12 conference, but much of that confidence seems to be based around a few known commodities and a whole lot of question marks. That's why this game could prove so valuable.
For those in, around and following the Kansas program, this group has a great deal to prove. Expectations in Jayhawkland rarely change when it comes to basketball, but with the departure of so many contributors it's a clean slate with fresh faces and some experienced talent that now has to step up and lead this team.
Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson have been branded the trio that will carry this team. The three starters all have significant experience and all three played a major role on last years Elite Eight team. Beyond that you have a host of players with limited experience such as center Jeff Withey and small forward Travis Releford. And you also have a good number of brand new faces that will look to contribute, Justin Wesley, Naadir Tharpe and Kevin Young have been the early contributors filling this role.
So when Bill Self looks across the court to the other bench tonight he will see a Kentucky team that has some returning experience from a Final Four team, and a team that has some extremely high profile talent in what was another top recruiting class for John Calipari.
It's the perfect situation for Self. Roll the ball out and put your team up against an opponent that is considered by many to be one of the top four contenders in the nation. It gives the Kansas coach an opportunity to challenge those experienced upperclassman and force them to lead on a big stage. It also gives the Kansas coach a true trial by fire setting for those inexperienced players who will become critical components if Kansas is going to make a run at the Big 12 title and in the NCAA tournament.
In addition Self and Kansas get an opportunity to showcase what they have on a National stage in Madison Square Garden in what is being built up by ESPN as one of the top early season contests. You take that type of exposure any day of the week and regardless of a win or a loss, Self is going to have plenty of "teachable" moments after this one.
It amounts to a measuring stick game for Kansas. Kentucky is favored by seven points and that is probably a pretty fair prediction. Some might even predict a larger margin from a talented Kentucky team but Kansas certainly has some talent of their own. Win or lose the most important take away tonight is that at the end of the night Bill Self is going to have a great opportunity to take a game against a high caliber opponent early in the season and help his team learn from it. It's one of those opportunities that gives you a jumpstart and sometimes a headstart when preparing for a long season.