The main takeaway from last week's exhibition game for Kansas was probably that while this is a talented team, some growing pains are likely as Self figures out how to fit the new pieces together.
That was still clear early in this one, as Kansas opened regular season play against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. The Jayhawks were finding ways to score out of the gate, but lacking answers on the other end as Michigan State found way too many easy buckets. It was back and forth with no individual Jayhawks really taking over early, leading to a 17-16 Spartan lead at the under-12 timeout.
Turnovers gave both teams some easy buckets throughout the first half while also keeping the game ugly. The teams had already combined for a dozen giveaways after MSU gave it away again coming out of the under-8 timeout. Neither team looked definitively better than the other through the first half, with both squads showing real strengths offset by clear weaknesses.
A 6-0 run for KU sparked by some big plays from freshman Zach Clemence helped Kansas to a two-possession lead with five minutes to go in the first, but less than a minute and a half later, MSU had regained the lead. The Jayhawks just never asserted themselves enough for it to show up in the form of a decent advantage on the scoreboard in the first half. Kansas finally built their biggest lead to that point by making it 37-31 with a minute left, and entered the locker room up 39-32.
At the break, Kansas was led in scoring by Ochai Agbaji with 10 points. Star transfer Remy Martin had been virtually invisible, scoring nothing on two shot attempts in ten minutes on the court. The David McCormack of early last year (i.e. bad David McCormack) had made an appearance as he went 1-4 shooting, scoring four points without a single rebound. KU as a team was outrebounded on both ends despite similar shooting numbers for both squads. It's safe to say Bill Self likely had some choice words for his team in the locker room despite the seven point advantage.
The team, Agbaji and Martin specifically, found themselves clicking to start the second half. By the under-12 break Kansas led 61-50, with Ochai already up to 23 points for the night and Martin scoring 9 in eight minutes with a pair of assists. By the under-8, the writing was on the wall. KU's superior talent had begun to shine through and the Spartans had no answers once things came together.
Down the stretch, Kansas led by as many as 16. With 2:20 left, Michigan State pulled to within ten, but a pair of Agbaji free throws kept the lead in double digits, and the Jayhawks were able to cruise down the stretch, maybe even letting their foot off the gas a bit, but eventually ending with an 87-74 victory.
The easy choice for player of the game would be Ochai Agbaji. He finished with a career high 29 points, hitting three of six from deep. Martin bounced back from his poor first half to the point where he was the team's second leading scorer, ending with 15, plus six boards and two assists.
All the while, McCormack looked closer to the player he was early last season as opposed to the player who finished strong and made the All-Big 12 team. He scored ten, but shot just 4-11 from the floor, and grabbed only two boards. His rotations and help defense weren't especially consistent, but he did block two shots. We'll hope it was just a rough game, because the team needs him to be February McCormack from last season, and not December McCormack.
The Jayhawks have a much easier game waiting for them Friday, as they host Billy Gillispie's Tarleton State squad. They were scheduled to play Tarleton last year, but the game was a Covid casualty. Gillispie's Texans are ranked 215th by KenPom, coming off a 10-10 season last year. That game will be broadcast on ESPN+ at 7:00 pm Jayhawk Time.