LAWRENCE — A choppy offseason in the rearview mirror, Kansas basketball’s season debut could best be described as smooth sailing.
Or “Smoove” sailing, as it were.
The No. 1-ranked Jayhawks plowed through Emporia State 93-55 on Thursday night in Allen Fieldhouse in the team’s first of two preseason exhibition contests. Dedric Lawson, known affectionately as “Smoove” by teammates and coaches, had quite the debut, too, as the junior forward erupted for 31 points on 11-for-16 shooting and 15 rebounds in 23 minutes in his first game as a Jayhawk after last year’s mandatory sit-out year following his transfer from Memphis.
Thursday night’s contest was never in question, with Lawson the key reason why.
The 6-foot-9 preseason All-American scored the Jayhawks’ first 10 points, kick-starting a 26-3 run that gave KU a 28-6 advantage with just under eight minutes left in the opening period. He bullied his way to a first-half double-double — 14 points and 12 rebounds — in just 11 minutes, adding a block and a 3-point make to highlight his versatility.
Lawson, who averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds and racked up 19 double-doubles in his lone season at Memphis, had six boards in the first five minutes against the Hornets. As expected, he started the contest alongside center Udoka Azubuike and guard Lagerald Vick, with freshman guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson joining the trio in the yet-to-be-finalized Jayhawk starting lineup.
Despite Lawson’s stat-filling performance, KU coach Bill Self’s postgame feedback may have been the most critical of any the 16,000-plus in attendance would’ve given the forward.
“He didn’t praise me at all. He said it was the ugliest 31 he’s ever seen,” said Lawson, who had four of KU’s 22 turnovers. “And I agree with him because it was kind of a sloppy game, our first time playing with each other out there. As the season goes on and we get these next couple practices under our belt, the game will get easier for us because we’re learning our ways.
“All of us are really like freshmen because I feel like a freshman out there being out there again. But it was fun just being back out there.”
Grimes (10 points) was the second-leading scorer for the balanced Jayhawks, who trotted out 13 players in the unofficial tilt.
Emporia State, meanwhile, struggled at the outset of first-year head coach Craig Doty’s debut, though the top-ranked Jayhawks are undoubtedly the most talented foe the MIAA program will face this season. The Hornets were 2-for-22 shooting to start the game, and while ESU stabilized in the second half, the outcome was never in doubt.
Hassan Thomas had a team-high 17 points for the Hornets.
The contest tipped exactly 24 hours after Self’s impromptu news conference in this very facility, where the KU coach stated he and his staff “have not and do not offer improper inducements” to recruits, nor are they aware of any third-party attempts to do so. Those remarks came after the Wednesday conclusion of a high-profile trial of two Adidas executives and an aspiring sports agent, all found guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The defense at those proceedings introduced as evidence text messages that showed Self and assistant coach Kurtis Townsend discussing Jayhawk-targeted recruits with former Adidas runner-turned-government witness Thomas “T.J.” Gassnola.
Silvio De Sousa missed his first game as part of KU’s indefinite withholding of the sophomore forward as the university and the NCAA conduct an eligibility review. Gassnola testified he delivered $2,500 to De Sousa’s guardian Fenny Falmagne during the prospect’s recruiting process, and Falmagne was also alleged to have accepted $60,000 from a Maryland booster to steer De Sousa to the Under Armour program. Another scheduled $20,000 payment from Gassnola to Falmagne to help repay that debt was never made, Gassnola testified.
Dressed in street clothes and parked on the end of the KU bench Thursday, De Sousa showed good spirits and energy, jumping to his feet and letting out a shout during a first-half block by teammate Marcus Garrett. There is no timetable for De Sousa’s return.
KU caps its exhibition slate with a 7 p.m. Nov. 1 home date against Washburn before heading to Indianapolis for a 6 p.m. Nov. 6 season opener against No. 10 Michigan State at the Champions Classic.
“There’s a lot of things I don’t believe we do very well, and we may not do very well for a while, until our guards get comfortable,” Self said. “The thing about it is, if our bigs don’t play a lot better than that, then what’s the strength of our team? We should be able to play inside-out. Tonight, Dedric got his, but we’ve got to be a lot better at our strengths, and when we’re that, I think the guards will be a little bit better too because they’ll get shots off of that.
“I still don’t think we compete on the possessions like I know Michigan State will. They’re experienced.”
AGBAJI REDSHIRT TBD — Freshman guard Ochai Agbaji scored eight points on 3-for-3 shooting, connecting on a pair of 3-point attempts in the final minutes.
A candidate to be redshirted by the deep Jayhawks, Agbaji has got 10 days left “to prove himself,” Self said.
“He’s going to be a good player,” Self said. “He’s been pretty timid the last couple of weeks and tonight at the end he had a couple go down, so that will help him and give him some confidence. But he’s going to be really good. He looks like a player to me. He’s got the shoulders and length and athletic ability.”
Any decision to redshirt Agbaji will be one made by the KU coaches, Agbaji himself and the player’s family, though Self seems to be leaning toward sitting the 6-5, 210-pounder from Kansas City, Mo.
“We haven’t made a decision yet,” Self said. “My personal opinion is he’s too good to play five minutes a game, so he needs to kind of emerge to be one of our top five on the perimeter or I think it’d probably be in our best interest and his best interest to think about doing the redshirt thing.”