Just 19 months after Kansas and Memphis met for college basketball supremacy, the programs are in vastly different situations going into Tuesday night’s rematch of their national championship game.
Xavier Henry could be one of the big reasons why.
The high-scoring freshman will help lead the top-ranked Jayhawks against Memphis after originally committing to the Tigers, who will be major underdogs as they try to avenge their overtime loss in the 2008 NCAA title game.
Kansas opened 2009-10 as the favorite to win its second NCAA championship in three seasons - the first of which came at the expense of Memphis. Jayhawks guard Mario Chalmers hit a tying 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation and Kansas won 75-68 in overtime.
While all 10 starters from that game have moved on, the Jayhawks have reloaded around preseason All-Americans Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, adding Henry as perhaps the most important new piece.
The 6-foot-6 shooting guard was one of the nation’s top recruits, and planned to go to Memphis before coach John Calipari left for Kentucky in the offseason. Henry ended up at Kansas, and led the Jayhawks with 27 points in 24 minutes in his collegiate debut, a 101-65 win over Hofstra on Friday.
“I told (Henry) after the game that it was a (school) freshman record and congratulations,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “but not to get too cocky.”
Collins added 23 points, and the Jayhawks (1-0) also showcased their depth as freshmen Elijah Johnson and Thomas Robinson logged significant time off the bench and combined for 13 points.
Self may rely on his stars more against Memphis, a team he said he doesn’t know very well.
“It will be a little bit of a different atmosphere (than the title game),” Self said. “We’ve got to start defining roles and get a little more organized that way. I just hope that we go out and play with energy. When we play with energy I think we’re pretty hard to guard.”
The Kansas coach isn’t alone in his unfamiliarity with the Tigers, who are trying to rebuild after the departure of Calipari. He guided them to a 252-69 mark in nine seasons and perfect Conference USA records each of the last three seasons.
Calipari, though, left behind questions about the program’s alleged violations, which caused the Tigers’ 2008 Final Four run to be vacated because a player - believed to be star point guard Derrick Rose - was ruled ineligible. Henry was among several recruits who reneged on their commitments to Memphis after the coach’s departure.
New coach Josh Pastner has been left to pick up the pieces with the Tigers’ top four scorers from last season gone. While Memphis (1-0) has not received any Top 25 votes, there is some reason for optimism following an 82-53 win over Jackson State on Friday night.
Elliot Williams and Will Coleman led the way in their Memphis debuts, with Williams scoring a game-high 19 points in his initial game after transferring from Duke. Coleman, a junior college transfer, had 16 points and 10 rebounds.
The 32-year-old Pastner knows his players will have a tough time staying with Kansas, which has its top nine scorers back in addition to the strong freshman class.
“You look up and down their roster, they’ve got many, many pros,” Pastner said. “They’re the favorite, no question we’re the underdog and we’ll just have to be ready, be prepared and it’ll be a fun night.”