With a revamped young lineup, defending national champion Kansas has had the advantage of not traveling more than 50 miles from campus and not playing an especially difficult schedule thus far.
The Jayhawks should continue to benefit from that less demanding early string of games Saturday.
The 25th-ranked Jayhawks (7-1) go for their fifth straight win and 31st in a row at home when they face struggling Massachusetts in the Kansas City Shootout at the Sprint Center.
Kansas lost six of its top seven scorers - five of which were NBA draft picks - from its 2008 title-winning team, but coach Bill Self appears to have reloaded the roster. The Jayhawks added a talented freshman class to complement junior Sherron Collins and emerging sophomore Cole Aldrich.
Just how good the new-look Jayhawks are remains to be seen, as they’ve hardly been tested. All of their games have taken place in Lawrence or Kansas City, and aside from an 89-81 overtime loss to Syracuse in the final of the CBE Classic on Nov. 25, have won every other game by at least 15 points.
The latest was an 86-62 home victory over Jackson State last Saturday, as the Jayhawks led by five at halftime before going on to the blowout victory. Collins, Kansas’ leading scorer with 17.8 points per game, had 17 and Aldrich, who’s averaging a double-double, added 13 points and eight rebounds.
Kansas also got contributions from its freshmen. Tyshawn Taylor had 10 points and 11 assists and reserve Marcus Morris added 13 points. Morris’ twin brother, Markieff, chipped in eight points and five rebounds.
“As a group they have done pretty well,” Self said of the freshmen. “Still, from my vantage point, we need to keep moving in a very positive direction because I don’t think they have come close to what they can be or our team can be when they get totally comfortable and playing at a high level.”
UMass (2-6) has not been doing that, dropping six straight before Wednesday’s game against Holy Cross. The Minutemen finally snapped the skid with a 73-59 win, matching a season high by shooting 50.0 percent from the field.
Ricky Harris had 23 points and Tony Gaffney added 17 and 11 rebounds for UMass.
“To be 1-6 sometimes, kids can go the other way but these kids have not,” said first-year UMass coach Derek Kellogg, a Memphis assistant last season when Kansas beat the Tigers in the NCAA title game. “… I think us getting a win now validates some of the things we are trying to teach them.”
While Harris has led the way offensively from the outside, averaging 21.3 points, Gaffney has stepped up in the middle. The senior, who began his career at Boston University, is averaging 13.3 points and 12.9 rebounds after coming into the season with career averages of 3.4 points and 3.8 boards.
“They have a guy who is averaging 21 who can make shots, and they have probably as active a big man as we’ve played against who is good on the glass and can step out away,” Self said. “… Their record is remarkable to me because they are better than their record indicates.”
Kansas is 3-1 against UMass, losing the most recent matchup 64-60 in Amherst on Jan. 16, 1999.
The Minutemen are 4-1 against defending national champions, most recently defeating Florida 78-66 in the NIT last season.