Big 12 team in red jerseys has what it takes to compete against Jayhawks

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas senior guard Devonte' Graham smiles with transfers Dedric Lawson and Charlie Moore after a missed chance by Mitch Lightfoot during an exhibition game Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, against Pittsburg State at Allen Fieldhouse.

The masses wouldn’t be so quick to treat this Kansas basketball team’s bid for a 14th consecutive Big 12 title almost as a formality if it considered the size, speed, skill and experience level of one of the teams it faces.

Before considering the name across the jerseys of this team’s players, because that could slant your judgment, consider that one of the starters is a freshman ranked No. 11 in his recruiting class. The other four have combined to start 141 of their 151 collegiate games, which means they were good enough to start from Day 1.

Now look at the size of the five starters, moving from point guard to center: 5-foot-11, 6-6, 6-8, 6-10, 6-9. They’re loaded with speed and sky-walkers.

Each starter, except the freshman, has averaged at least 9.5 points per game in a season and one averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Meet KU’s greatest red team of all-time: Charlie Moore, Sam Cunliffe, K.J. Lawson, Billy Preston and Dedric Lawson.

In reality, of course, this team can’t hurt the Jayhawks’ chances of extending their Big 12 dominance, but they can help to continue the streak.

Cunliffe will be leaving the red team and joining the real Jayhawks as soon as the Nebraska game. Preston remains in limbo, hoping to join the real team and leave the red squad behind. But for the moment, Kansas faces better competition daily in practice than any team in the nation.

The 1931 Philadelphia A’s, managed by Connie Mack, enter many conversations about the greatest all-time baseball team, but one factor that contributed to their dominance never is mentioned: Hall of Famer Lefty Grove used to like to throw full-speed batting practice frequently, believing that the best way to make his arm stronger, more accurate, was to use it in between starts. It helped to ready the hitters for games, where they seldom faced a pitcher of his talent.

KU coach Bill Self has talked about shortening practices because of the team’s lack of depth, but based on the sharpness of the team’s early season play, what practices lack in quantity is more than compensated for with the quality of the daily competition.

“Sometimes in practice coach gets so mad at us because they’ll be killing us, but when you think about it, they’re Div. I basketball players too,” senior guard Devonte’ Graham said. “It’s not like we’re just playing against the walk-ons. They’ve definitely been making us better defensively and offensively.”

Graham sharpens his game playing against Cal transfer Charlie Moore, a 5-11 point guard.

“Real quick first step, can’ handle the ball really well and can shoot it, so he makes Malik and me better defenders,” Graham said. “It’s good to have another guard who is like someone you’re going to be playing against.”

Self doesn’t take the red-team players for granted either.

“The other day we played the red team for a 10-minute scrimmage and they scored 34 points on us in 10 minutes,” Self said. “It’s not uncommon for them to score 25 in 10 minutes, running clock, so that means they would score 100 on us, easily, if it’s a 40-minute game. So even though it’s enough to make me mad, it’s probably good for us.”

Dedric Lawson averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 boards for Memphis last season.

“If Billy’s on our red team along with Dedric, that’s as good a front line as we’re going to play against,” Self said. “Then you have K.J. and Sam, those are pretty good guards. I’m not saying all-league, but those are good guards. And throw Charlie in there, that’s a pretty good red team.”

Facing that sort of talent in practice keeps bad habits from developing and keeps the eligible Jayhawks competing at a high level. Good practice habits lead to good game performances and Kansas (7-0) has had plenty of those already.