LAWRENCE — No one on the Kansas bench Friday wondered what valleys could be explored in Utah and whether they were inhabited by Wolverines.
Kentucky, however, was fretting over that force of nature. Well, more specifically, the issues Utah Valley presented to the inexperienced, but talented Wildcats in basketball.
The Wolverines led by nine at halftime before Kentucky prevailed 73-63 in Rupp Arena over a season-opening opponent based in Orem, Utah, and playing out of the reconstructed Western Athletic Conference.
In Allen Fieldhouse, the No. 4 Jayhawks were busy making amends for a poor showing in their third and final exhibition, when they swapped leads 10 times with Fort Hays State and provoked coach Bill Self into panning just about every offensive and defensive motion his team attempted.
With a 92-56 rout of Tennessee State to begin play officially on Friday, No. 4 Kansas looked ready for the big stage it will be presented Tuesday at the Champions Classic in Chicago’s United Center , where it will meet, yes, No. 5 Kentucky.
“I think the first half was (good), but I don’t know if there’s any correlation at all,’’ said Self, mentioning past performances to open the season and how they did not predict outcomes in the Champions Classic.
“I don’t know that there’s an exact formula that gives you the best chance,’’ Self added, “but certainly I feel like having momentum and having a couple of positive things happen will help our preparation the next couple of days.’’
Shooting 60 percent, forging a 45-23 advantage on the glass, getting double-doubles from guards Devonte’ Graham and Marcus Garrett, attacking the rim for a 46-18 scoring edge in the paint … all were decisive factors in KU’s dominant debut.
The stakes change soon, however.
Not that a win or loss in the Champions Classic will alter KU’s goals or expectations, but the attention the Jayhawks receive and the competition they face elevates considerably.
“It shows us what we need to work on, where we’re at right now, how tough we’ve got to play in big games,’’ said Graham, whose career-high 12 assists keyed the attack mentality KU exerted from the outset against Tennessee State. “It shows new guys the atmosphere that’s going to come from playing here and how we’re expected to play.’’
There will be plenty of fresh faces, and not all belong to Kentucky.
Count on one first-year player to start in his first Champions Classic for KU. That could even be Garrett based on the 6-foot-5 freshman’s impressive debut Friday starting ahead of sophomore Malik Newman. Another Jayhawk who was suspended for the opener, forward Billy Preston, should provide extended minutes against the Wildcats.
“The butterflies will be different, and it will be nice to see how much poise we have in a pressure situation,’’ Self said. “I certainly anticipate it not being very pretty, but I do anticipate both teams playing very, very hard.’’
Kentucky, which gets another home tuneup Sunday against Vermont, proved capable of wild swings, missing 15 straight shots while falling behind Utah Valley in the first half before making eight straight shots in the second half.
UK coach John Calipari was frustrated enough in the Wildcats’ defense to switch to a zone, something he detests.
“We went zone and it kind of got us going,’’ Calipari said of the 2-3 look. “That’s what we should use zone for. We had too many guys that were just getting beat on the dribble, too many guys out of position. That’s what happens when you have all freshmen and a couple of sophomores.’’
Nothing, however, should lull anyone into thinking Kansas-Kentucky is just another game.
“It’s definitely bigger than that,’’ Graham said. “Early in the season, it’s a huge game. Everybody’s watching it, but at the same time, it’s just another game to test us and see how we are early in the season. But it’s definitely a big game.’’