Kentucky and Kansas stars are making the most of fresh starts

Kentucky grinds out a victory over Kansas (1:48)

PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson all register double-doubles as the No. 8 Wildcats knock off the No. 9 Jayhawks 71-63. (1:48)

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Between the two of them, No. 9 Kansas and No. 8 Kentucky played eight top-30 recruits from ESPN's 2018 class in their Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup on Saturday.

Yet the crux of the battle, won 71-63 by Kentucky, was staged in the paint, where Dedric Lawson (20 points, 15 rebounds) and Reid Travis (18 points, 12 rebounds) fueled their respective squads.

They're two of the best big men in America. They're also both transfers who sought -- and found -- greener pastures after they left their former schools.

"It was a big decision," Lawson said of his choice to leave Memphis in 2017 before sitting out last season due to NCAA rules. "It's something you dream about as a kid. I cherish most the opportunity to play against PJ Washington. He's like a little brother to me. It was fun. But like you said, we wanted to get the win."

A sea of reporters three rows deep fenced in Travis after his team's win.

He said he left Stanford last summer to join Kentucky as a grad transfer in part because he craved moments such as the one he experienced Saturday in Lexington, where thousands showed up to watch ESPN's College GameDay earlier in the day.

"It was a big part of it," Travis said. "For me to put in a lot of work, I wanted to play against the best players in the country, wanted to play on the best stage in the country. This was the best place for me, and I think tonight really showed that."

If you listen to some of college basketball's coaches and commentators, you might think Lawson and Travis -- and others like them -- are part of the problem.

In recent years, reports of 700 transfers per year have been touted by the game's old guard as proof that a weaker generation of players can't handle tough coaching. Those folks will also tell you that young people aren't as resilient as they used to be. But Saturday's exciting matchup between a pair of premier players (and transfers) offered another example to rebut the false narrative that has percolated in college basketball.

Yes, coaches at all levels have valid concerns about the stability of their programs, knowing that their best players might transfer. It's a more pertinent concern for non-Power 5 coaches, who wonder if their top athletes will become grad transfers and blossom in final seasons at schools that play on national TV.

But the 700 transfers are also 700 stories. They're 700 different reasons. They're 700 difficult choices. Any suggestion that they all fit the same profile is unfair. Yet that's how coaches describe them.

On Saturday, Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin praised senior Justin Jenifer for staying with the Bearcats all four years.

"People talk about guys quitting, and there's 700 transfers in college basketball," said Cronin, who was hired from Murray State in 2006. "Justin Jenifer told everybody in Baltimore, 'I'm going to play in Cincinnati, and I'm going to show you!' Instead of quitting and transferring, he said, 'I'm going to get better, and I'm going to do what the coach is asking me to do, and I'm going to believe in the coaches.'"

These false badges of honor that coaches pin to the jerseys of players who refuse to transfer are the same ones they leave on their desks when they bolt for new jobs and leave behind the players they recruited. The coaches who leave schools do it for the same reasons Travis and Lawson sought fresh starts: They want to enhance their careers.

Lawson and his brother, K.J., left Memphis for Kansas after Tubby Smith demoted their father, Keelon Lawson, and a team blessed with talent finished 19-13 and lost in the first round of the American Athletic Conference tournament.

Lawson, perhaps the best player in a top-10 matchup on Saturday, has never been to the NCAA tournament. Today, he's the leader of a Kansas team seeking its 15th consecutive Big 12 title and a legit NBA prospect. Those are opportunities he did not have at Memphis.

But when Lawson first came to Lawrence, he got into a fight in practice, and coach Bill Self called him into his office and told him that he couldn't do that and expect to keep his scholarship. Then, Self left Lawson home when the team went to Italy for a foreign tour.

That punishment changed Lawson. It made him a better leader. It made him re-evaluate himself as a player and a young man.

This season, he might win the Wooden Award.

Do you think he made the right choice to transfer?

Travis endured a heartbreaking knee injury as a sophomore at Stanford, where he earned all-Pac 12 first-team honors as a redshirt junior. The Minneapolis native worked as hard as any player in the country during his time with Stanford. He returned from that injury and matured into a potent power forward.

After he made just 46 percent of his free throws in the 2014-15 season, Travis turned to technology for assistance. A group of techies at Stanford designed a free throw virtual-reality simulator that allowed Travis to put on a pair of goggles and shoot free throws in simulated road environments throughout the offseason.

This year, Travis has made 72 percent of his free throws.

But his growth and hard work led him and his team only to the NIT. When he worked out for NBA teams last summer, they told him he'd benefit from another year against better competition.

Travis didn't leave Stanford because he had a problem with his coaches. He didn't leave because he was a wishy-washy 20-something who couldn't make up his mind.

He left for the same reasons Cronin might one day leave Cincy. For the same reason John Calipari left Memphis. For the same reason coaches make the difficult decisions to accept opportunities elsewhere every year.

Travis wanted more.

Now he's averaging 12.6 PPG and 6.7 RPG for a Kentucky squad that has lost one game since Dec. 8.

Do you think he made the right choice to transfer?

Their stories are like the stories of the 700 kids -- an average of two per Division I team -- who made the same choice.

There is Matt Mooney (10.2 PPG) at Texas Tech. Makai Mason is starring for Baylor. Brandon Clarke is a starter for Gonzaga and a projected first-round pick in this summer's NBA draft following a two-year stretch at San Jose State. Michigan's Charles Matthews (13.2 PPG) left Kentucky for a better opportunity to showcase his talents. Marial Shayok leads the Big 12 in scoring after leaving Virginia. Nevada's entire starting five are transfers who desired second chances.

Their stories and reasons for leaving are unique. But they shared the desire to bet on themselves and continue to play a game they love in different environments.

On Saturday, Lawson said his team can improve in the coming weeks. He said the Jayhawks can learn from their loss to Kentucky.

He was leader after a loss.

"Just enjoy it," he said of the game. "You don't get too many opportunities to play against Kentucky in one of the legendary facilities. You just take the game and learn from it."

Travis said the matchup against Lawson added "a little extra" to the buildup to Saturday's game. But he was just as excited about the College GameDay trucks, the fans and the ESPN talent who threw a party at Rupp Arena earlier in the day.

"It gives me an atmosphere, it gives me a platform like I didn't have in the past," Travis said of transferring to Kentucky. "It was perfect. I loved it for me to have the first College GameDay in my experience and kind of just soak it all in. It was great."

Both Lawson and Travis experienced something for the first time on Saturday.

Perhaps that's a sign the veterans made good choices to write the next chapters of their careers at different schools.