Self says KU vs. UConn is ‘as big a game as I can ever remember in early December’

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University of Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self, who was recovering from a serious heart procedure last March Madness, had more important things on his mind — i.e. his health — than the 2023 NCAA Tournament, one dominated start-to-finish by UConn.

“I was a little out of it last year during their run. I actually watched the last 10 days of the tournament in Florida (at his family beach house),” Self said Thursday at a news conference held in advance of Friday’s nonconference clash between the No. 4-ranked Huskies (7-0) and No. 5 Jayhawks (6-1).

Tipoff is 8 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse with a live telecast on ESPN.

UConn dominated the 2023 postseason tourney to the tune of six double-digit wins including 76-59 over San Diego State in the title game in Houston.

“I thought it was UConn and everybody else last year, to be honest with you,” Self added. “When we got our seed and we were a 1 seed, the first thing I looked at was where they were. We’d have been playing them in the Sweet 16 if we won a game (against Arkansas), which we didn’t. That to me would have put us in the hardest draw in the bracket being a 1 seed and having to go against them. I thought they were red hot and they were.”

UConn remains on fire entering Friday’s contest which is marquee game of the Big East/Big 12 Battle. The Huskies have won all seven games by double digits including a 77-57 victory over Indiana and 81-71 decision over Texas.

UConn has won 24 straight games against nonconference foes by double digits, the longest such streak in NCAA history.

“I think anytime you can win 24 in a row regardless is pretty impressive,” Self said Thursday, “To me if it was 24 in a row and they all were guarantee games that’s still impressive, but it’s not as impressive as six games in a row in the NCAA Tournament which are considered part of the streak. Beating Indiana and Texas, those teams by double figures, that’s a very impressive streak,’ Self added.

UConn is led by senior guard Tristen Newton and his 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. center Donovan Clingan averages 15 and 6 and forward Alex Karaban 14.6 and 5.7. UConn is the highest ranked nonconference opponent to play KU at Allen Fieldhouse since No. 2 Ohio State in 2011. The No. 13-ranked Jayhawks defeated the second-ranked Buckeyes 78-67 on Dec. 10, 2011.

Prior to that, No. 5 KU defeated No. 8 Creighton, 73-72, on Dec. 8, 2020 in Allen. No. 5 KU lost to No. 12 Kentucky, 80-62, on Jan. 29, 2022 at Allen. The No. 14-ranked Jayhawks beat No. 16 Indiana last season at home, 84-62.

Adding to the drama Friday is the fact this game matches the last two NCAA championship teams. It’s the second straight year for defending national champs to meet in Allen. KU, which won it all in 2022 defeated 2021 champ Baylor 87-71 last winter in the fieldhouse.

“It’s a big game,” Self said. “Am I going to tell you it’s bigger than a winner-take-all game for a Big 12 championship? I’m not going to tell you that and Danny (Hurley, UConn coach) won’t tell you that either. Is it bigger than playing Kentucky at home when they could win a national championship? I am not going to tell you that.

“I’m telling you from this standpoint right now, from this moment, playing the defending national champions that’s on a roll right now in early December is as big a game as I can ever remember in early December. But I am not not going to go on and say this is the biggest game we’ve ever played.

“I don’t think that’s fair to anybody. I don’t think they (Huskies) would say the same thing, either. There have been a lot of big games I am sure when UConn was playing Villanova those were some big games too in Gample (Pavilion at UConn). I think both teams would probably agree this is about as big as it can be on Dec. 1.”

Of the significance of the game, KU senior center Hunter Dickinson said; “I think this game is a great opportunity for us to bounce back from our previous game. We know that wasn’t our best basketball (Tuesday’s 71-63 win over Eastern Illinois).

“What better opportunity to showcase how good a team you are than to go against the No. 4 team in the country that is on a pretty impressive winning streak and just won the national championship. It’s a great test for us, great test individually and collectively as a team. We’re all pretty excited for it.’