Six years ago, in August of 2017, I followed the Kansas men’s basketball team to Italy to watch Bill Self’s squad play four games in Rome and Milan.
None of them were close and the whole point of the trip was more about bonding and taking advantage of the extra practice time than it was about focusing on what actually happened in the games.
There were memorable moments. Malik Newman showed his potential to catch fire. Mitch Lightfoot almost fought a grown Italian man. Billy Preston actually played (and started one game) and Udoka Azubuike nearly ended the trip early when his vicious dunks nearly brought too much destruction to the goals at the gym in Rome.
The games went on, though, and the Jayhawks won all four of them with ease.
That might not be the case starting next week, when the 2023-24 KU squad heads south to Puerto Rico for a three-game exhibition tour on the island.
The Jayhawks will leave Aug. 1 and play games on Aug. 3, 5 and 7 before coming home on Aug. 8. All three games will be played at the Ruben Rodriguez Coliseum in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.
The opener will take place at 11 a.m. against a Puerto Rico Select Team and the final two games will pit the Jayhawks against the Bahamian National Team, with the Aug. 5 game tipping off at 4 p.m. and the Aug. 7 game starting at 11 a.m.
All three games will air on the Jayhawk Radio Network, and those last two could be absolute battles.
According to a press release announcing the plans for the trip, the Bahamian team could include any of the following notable names: NBA standouts Eric Gordon, Klay Thompson, Kai Jones, Buddy Hield and Deandre Ayton, as well as former KU guard and 2022 national champion Remy Martin.
Even if only half of that group plays, the Jayhawks will have their hands full. And this will be different than the recent scrimmage between the current squad and KU’s TBT team. The average age of that TBT group was somewhere around 33. The average age of the group listed above is 28 and most of those players are still active in the NBA.
Imagine, for a second, KU big man Hunter Dickinson going up against Ayton, one of the top six or seven big men in the entire NBA. Picture KU’s defense trying desperately to stay connected to dead-eye shooters Thompson and Hield or trying to keep up with the energy that Martin brings to the floor.
Those last two games should be a terrific test and it’s entirely possible that Kansas could drop either or both of them. Even if that happens, you’d have to look at it as a valuable experience for this squad of newcomers that has eyes on winning a national title.
Next month’s trip will be the fifth preseason exhibition tour during Self’s 21 seasons with the program. Schools are allowed to take one once every four years, and KU traveled to Canada in 2004 and 2008, Switzerland and France in 2012 and Italy in 2017.
The Jayhawks also represented the United States at the 2015 World University Games in Korea, where they won gold, and Kansas is 92-9 all-time in exhibition games (60-2 under Self), including an active streak of 33 consecutive victories dating back to Oct. 30, 2012.
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