INDIANAPOLIS — Dedric Lawson says he came to Kansas for games like this, and when one considers what has previously been the biggest stage he’s played on, it’s easy to buy that claim.
Lawson and the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks open their season with a 6 p.m. Tuesday clash against No. 10 Michigan State at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the first contest in a Champions Classic doubleheader that has become one of the most watched events of college basketball’s regular season. Fellow bluebloods Duke and Kentucky handle the main event this year, with the No. 2 Wildcats and No. 4 Blue Devils meeting in an 8:30 p.m. showdown.
“This,” Lawson said, “is as big as it gets.”
Tuesday’s contest will also represent Lawson’s official Jayhawk debut following a mandatory sit-out year — the 6-foot-9, 235-pound junior forward redshirted following his transfer from Memphis. In the two seasons Lawson spent with his hometown program, Memphis was unable to make the NCAA Tournament, with the sixth-seeded Tigers suffering a 72-58 defeat to UConn in the AAC Tournament’s championship game in Lawson’s freshman campaign of 2015-16.
Lawson scored a game-high 21 points on 7-for-16 shooting and hauled in 11 rebounds in that defeat, which the budding star called the biggest stage he’s ever played on — that is, until Tuesday.
The game against the Spartans will be the preseason All-American’s first true moment on a national stage, and for further evidence of that, consider the following:
The 2016 AAC Tournament championship game tipped off at 2:15 p.m. inside Amway Center in Orlando, Fla., and had an announced attendance of 7,990 with 1.53 million viewers watching at home, according to SportsBusinessDaily.com. The Jayhawks’ most recent Champions Classic contest, a 65-61 victory last season over Kentucky at United Center in Chicago, had an announced attendance of 21,684, and the prime-time event averaged 2.82 million viewers across both games, the second-best average in the Champions Classic’s seven-year existence.
So forgive Lawson, then, if a few early butterflies permeate within on Tuesday.
“I remember at Memphis watching these types of games before we go play and things like that and I always wanted to be in that spotlight, to go out there and display my talent,” Lawson said, “and I know a lot of (teammates) feel the same way.”
Michigan State is 2-0 all-time against KU in the Champions Classic, earning a 67-64 victory in 2012 and a 79-73 win in 2015. The Jayhawks, however, won their most recent contest against the Spartans, a 90-70 victory in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
“It’s totally different personnel on both sides,” said KU coach Bill Self, who has watched film of the Spartans’ only exhibition contest, as well as their previous clashes with the Jayhawks. “They always seem to play well against us, and we’ll have to play a lot better than we’ve played (in two exhibitions), but hopefully we’ll also raise our level in a way that maybe we haven’t seen yet going up there.”
This year’s Champions Classic will for the first time be held on college basketball’s opening night, a decision Self needs to see play out before judging.
“I would say (having the Champions Classic in) Game 2 is more of an advantage. I don’t know about Game 1,” Self said. “Like, we haven’t run one play yet, we haven’t put in a crutch. So I’m hopeful that we make them do something they haven’t seen yet, and I don’t think Tom (Izzo) has run all his stuff. ...
“It’s always better to watch a team play a real game so you know better how to prepare for it, so moving it up to a Tuesday to start the season and then having a game of this magnitude this early, I’m not sure it will be the best played Tuesday ever, especially if you’re playing with young kids, which we are, and they’ve got young kids, as well.”
Lawson isn’t a young kid anymore, though when it comes to high-profile, high-stakes contests, he has virtually the same experience level as true freshmen Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson.
Still, Lawson is looking forward to jumping in feet-first.
“I’m very excited to play a top-10 team early in the season,” Lawson said. “I think it’s a good time for us to see where we really stand from a whole collective, and I know the other guys are very excited, as well.”
NO. 10 MICHIGAN STATE VS. NO. 1 KANSAS
Tipoff: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Records (2017-18): Michigan State 30-5, Kansas 31-8
Line: KU by 5
TV/Radio: ESPN/KWIC-FM (99.3)
Next: Kansas vs. Vermont, 8 p.m. Nov. 12, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
(All statistics from the 2017-18 season)
NO. 10 MICHIGAN STATE (0-0)
P Player ... Ht. ... Cl. ... Pts. ... Reb.
F Nick Ward ... 6-9 ... Jr. ... 12.4 ... 7.1
F Kenny Goins ... 6-7 ... Sr. ... 2.1 ... 2.8
G Joshua Langford ... 6-5 ... Jr. ... 11.7 ... 3.0
G Matt McQuaid ... 6-5 ... Sr. ... 6.0 ... 1.9
G Cassius Winston ... 6-1 ... Jr. ... 12.6 ... 6.9*
NO. 1 KANSAS (0-0)
P Player ... Ht. ... Cl. ... Pts. ... Reb.
C Udoka Azubuike ... 7-0 ... Jr. ... 13.0 ... 7.0
F Dedric Lawson ... 6-9 ... Jr. ... n/a ... n/a
G Lagerald Vick ... 6-5 ... Sr. ... 12.1 ... 4.8
G Quentin Grimes ... 6-5 ... Fr. ... n/a ... n/a
G Devon Dotson ... 6-2 ... Fr. ... n/a ... n/a
* — Assists