LAWRENCE, Kan. — Southeast Missouri State coach Dickey Nutt approached old friend Bill Self before Friday night's game and asked him why the team was in Lawrence, playing seventh-ranked Kansas.
Nutt felt his team had no business inside Allen Fieldhouse.
By the end of the game, his Redhawks proved they belonged.
They pulled within six points midway through the second half, silencing the crowd, but the Jayhawks eventually created enough separation to finish with a 74-55 victory.
"We just couldn't hold the gate," Nutt said. "We played well enough to keep it competitive."
Despite scoring only four points in the opening 10 minutes, the Redhawks stayed within striking distance. They held the Jayhawks to 39 percent shooting and 2 for 21 from beyond the arc.
"We gave them some open looks, but tonight we just got lucky, because I know they're a good shooting team," said Nick Niemczyk, who led the Redhawks with 14 points.
The Jayhawks finished the game on a 31-18 run.
"They are big and strong," Nutt said, "but I was proud of our team."
The Redhawks, who have lost seven straight season openers, all on the road, remain winless in six tries against Big 12 schools.
Ben McLemore had nine points, 12 rebounds and five assists in his Kansas debut. Fellow-freshman Perry Ellis added 15 points and eight boards while Jeff Withey finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds as the Jayhawks won their 40th straight season openers at Allen Fieldhouse.
This one was a bit tougher than expected.
Kansas returns three starters from last year's national runners-up, including the 7-foot Withey, a preseason honorable-mention All-America selection. But the two guys they lost left gaping holes: Big 12 player of the year Thomas Robinson, who left early for the NBA draft, and Tyshawn Taylor, a senior guard who also went in the draft.
In their place are a bunch of newcomers – nine in all – including McLemore and Jamari Traylor, who were forced to redshirt last season after the NCAA ruled them partial qualifiers.
McLemore started the game along with Ellis, a school-boy star from Wichita, Kan.
The Jayhawks certainly showed some growing pains in their only tuneup before facing No. 14 Michigan State next week. They turned it over 13 times and finished 2 for 21 from beyond the 3-point arc, with top sharp-shooter Elijah Johnson missing all four of his attempts.
Early on, though, it looked like it was going to the quintessential Kansas romp.
Withey threw down a thunderous dunk off a feed from McLemore, and the Jayhawks' freshman wave played defense with the same zeal that took the program to the Final Four last season.
By the time Naadir Tharpe buried a 3 from the wing, Kansas had scored the first 11 points.
It was the last 3-pointer the Jayhawks would hit until the final minutes.
Kansas slowly built on its lead throughout the first half, forcing Nutt to call a timeout when Withey's basket with 4:25 remaining made it 28-14. But things started to unravel when the Jayhawks continually misfired from beyond the arc.
The Redhawks still trailed 36-19 with about 18 minutes remaining, but Nino Johnson's three-point play got their rally started. Lucas Nutt and Marland Smith added a pair of free throws, and after McLemore soared for a follow-up dunk, Johnson and Niemczyk added two more baskets.
The 11-2 surge got Southeast Missouri State within 38-30.
The Redhawks, picked to finish second in the Ohio Valley Conference, kept taking advantage of the Jayhawks' ineptitude on offense, whittling the lead to 43-37 with 12 minutes left.
But when Elijah Johnson went to the bench with his fourth foul, Kansas took off.
Withey got to the line for a pair of free throws, McLemore added a slashing layup, and Travis Releford got into the act with two free throws. By the time Ellis converted a three-point play with just under 8 minutes to go, the Jayhawks had extended the lead back to 54-41.
Kansas managed to grind the rest of the time off the clock, even chipping in a couple of highlights along the way: McLemore's soaring dunk off a miss by Johnson with just over 4 minutes left, and a rim-rattling dunk by Withey that energized the crowd moments later.
"The first half we played good, we just didn't make any shots," Self said. "You defend, you rebound, you don't turn it over, you get decent looks – we were up 15 the first half and based on how they shot it and we defended, we could have easily been up 25."