LAWRENCE, Kan. – The hallmark of Kansas last season was its ability to win ugly.
The Jayhawks would scrap for loose balls, throw a couple elbows under the basket to grab a rebound, clamp down like a vise-grip on opposing offenses and somehow get out in transition enough to put together the kind of game-changing runs that it takes to win games in March.
Already, it looks like this season's team will be no different.
Ben McLemore had 17 points and 10 rebounds, Elijah Johnson added 13 points and the seventh-ranked Jayhawks overcame 24 turnovers in a 62-50 exhibition victory over Division II Washburn on Monday night.
"There's going to be nights we don't play good. We can still win if we play defense and rebound," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "It's a good lesson you can still win ugly. If last year's team didn't win ugly, we would have won 20 games instead of 32."
Kansas will try to pretty up its performance on Friday night, when it opens the regular season against Southeast Missouri State, and certainly before a Nov. 13 date with No. 14 Michigan State as part of the Champions Classic in Atlanta.
"We've got to learn something from this. Today could be wasted if you don't learn something from it," Johnson said. "Today I think we learned that you have to win ugly sometimes."
Despite returning three starters from the team that pushed Kentucky to the limit in last season's national championship game, the Jayhawks have appeared ragged and unpolished through their first two exhibition games against small, in-state schools Emporia State and Washburn.
They needed a 19-1 run to help put away the Hornets last week, and then used a 16-3 run early Monday night before coaxing the game toward its messy conclusion.
"Everybody's thinking too much. There's too many people trying too hard and not just playing," Johnson said. "Everybody is making it too complex, and it's just confusing each other, rather than just rolling with the rhythm and hopping on the same train, building on each play."
McLemore, who sat out last season as a partial NCAA qualifier, was one of the few players who managed to produce on offense. He combined with Johnson and freshman Perry Ellis to score 29 of the Jayhawks' first 34 points, allowing them to build a 36-24 lead by halftime.
Still, even McLemore gave Self plenty of teachable moments.
One of them came early in the second half, when he gathered in the ball on the wing. With only one smaller defender in his way to the basket, McLemore opted to take a midrange jumper rather than go to the rim, leaving Self to scream halfway across the court for him to attack.
Self wound up calling three timeouts in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
"We weren't executing as well as the first game," Ellis said. "I mean, we weren't pushing it as good as the first game. That's the main thing, I feel. We just weren't pushing it."
These are the kind of growing pains that Kansas will no doubt experience through the first part of the season, though. Despite being picked to win their ninth consecutive Big 12 title, the reality is they have nine freshmen on the roster, seven of whom could contribute.
How steep has the learning curve been at Kansas? Even the courtside announcer is trying to settle into pronouncing the newcomers' names, half the time calling Anrio Adams with his full name and half the time shortening the freshman guard's first name to simply Rio.
Seven-footer Jeff Withey, one of the nation's premier post defenders, struggled again to get on track. He only had seven points and six rebounds against Emporia State, and had nine points and eight rebounds against the Ichabods, even though he had a massive size advantage in the paint.
Will McNeill scored 13 points to lead Washburn, a school from Topeka, Kan., that went 25-8 last season and was voted No. 2 in the NABC Division II preseason poll.
"I said at halftime that if we could stop this team from going on a run, we can get in this game," said McNeill, the biggest reason the Ichabods were within 53-42 with about 5 minutes left.
That's when Withey scored inside, and then made a block at the other to trigger a fastbreak, which Releford finished with a three-point play for a 58-42 lead.
Johnson added a 3 moments later to deliver the knockout blow.
"Kansas is going to be great," Washburn coach Bob Chipman said, before adding: "Man, if we play really hard, we're capable of some great things."