INDIANAPOLIS — In firm control of its high-profile season opener, Kansas basketball soon found itself stumbling shortly after the overwhelming chants for another team began.
But the roaring cries didn’t come from fans of the Jayhawks’ opponent Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats,” exclaimed the crowd midway through the second half.
“Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue,” they continued, this time with a Jayhawk at the free-throw line.
The bizarre scene of Kentucky fans overtaking a contest between KU and No. 10-ranked Michigan State seemed fitting of a peculiar debut for the new-look and top-ranked Jayhawks, who muscled their way to a 17-point lead with 11:53 to play, nearly blew it thanks to a toxic mix of missed free throws and defensive lapses, but nevertheless escaped with a 92-87 victory.
The win was the third straight for KU (1-0) at the Champions Classic, which featured a main-event clash between No. 2 Kentucky and No. 4 Duke. It was KU’s first win against the Spartans in three tries at the annual blueblood showdown.
“I’m just glad we won to be honest,” said a relieved Dedric Lawson, who finished with 20 points on 5-for-18 shooting with 14 rebounds and 6 assists. “Nobody wanted to lose. I don’t care if we won by one point, as long as we won. We have that first win under our belt and we can just build on it from there.”
A pair of freshmen did the heavy lifting for the Jayhawks.
Quentin Grimes scored 21 points, buoyed by a 6-for-7 start from beyond the arc. Devon Dotson pitched in 16 points and three steals, showcasing his electric quickness with a number of acrobatic layups. And while the Spartans (0-1) pulled within three with 34 seconds to play thanks to KU’s poor free-throw shooting — the team finished 20 for 33 from the stripe, making just 13 of 21 second-half attempts — Dotson and Grimes closed with free-throw makes that sealed the outcome.
After hitting his sixth trey, Dotson froze in his follow-through pose, soaking in the moment in front of the Jayhawk bench.
“Man, Q was terrific,” Lawson said of the two-guard Grimes. “He came out with a free mind, letting it go, and that’s something Coach (Bill Self) said before the game. He said, ‘Let it fly,’ and Q came out and displayed his talent.
“He was a great player tonight. He was the best on the team.”
Self was hopeful Grimes and Dotson would reward his decision to insert both into the season’s first starting lineup, though he took a see-it-to-believe-it approach with the backcourt duo.
Well, Self saw it, and perhaps now, the KU coach believes it.
“Now we know what they can do,” Self said of Dotson and Grimes. “You shouldn’t have to play well just because you made shots, and they both made shots, but there’s a lot of things especially Devon can do in transition. How many times did we have numbers and it led to transition points for them? A lot of it was over-trying too, but yeah, they were both gamers tonight. And Q was fabulous.”
Tuesday’s performances from Grimes and Dotson were perhaps spurred by a pair of conversations Self had with the players in the aftermath of the pair’s tepid exhibition contests.
With Dotson, Self recalled asking the point guard a simple question recently: Who does Dotson need to be an extension of on the court? When he answered Self, the coach responded by asking how Dotson can be an extension “if you don’t believe what I think is important?”
And those beliefs are?
“To be able to execute what we think is important,” Self answered. “That’s on him to set the tone for that. Obviously he can do a lot better, but he did a lot of nice things.”
With Grimes, Self pointed to a conversation the two had Monday.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’ve screwed up a lot of good players early in their careers,’ ” Self recalled. “He said, ‘Well, do they get out of it?’ And I said, ‘Every one of ‘em.’ So I was glad he got out of it tonight.”
Joking aside, Self indicated Grimes lived up to his prolific high school reputation in Game 1.
“People have told me in his camp that (Grimes) likes it when the lights are on, that he’s a gamer,” Self said. “You’d like to see it in practice consistently too, but he’s a good shooter. When you’re tentative you never shoot as well, but there was nothing tentative about him tonight.”
Udoka Azubuike scored 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting to round out the Jayhawks’ double-figure scorers, though the 7-footer made just 3 of 7 free-throw attempts with all four misses coming in the game’s final five minutes. Self cited Azubuike’s improved, softer stroke from the line in the coach’s belief the center will “get better at that” and said KU won’t substitute him out “very often in that situation.”
“You know, I was probably not very bright last year, but I’ve never been a guy that thinks you take your best players out in a game,” Self said of Azubuike, who also had four blocks in his 20 minutes. “I don’t know how that breeds confidence.”
Joshua Langford scored 18 points to pace four Michigan State players in double figures, going 4 for 4 from the free-throw line on an evening where the Spartans made just 23 of their 35 tries from the charity stripe.
KU continues its season with an 8 p.m. Monday contest against Vermont at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.
“Obviously we’ve got to learn how to close a game,” Self said, “but I thought we had some really good performances out there.”