View Full Version : KU is NOT going all the way now!

11-14-2006, 03:59 PM
Not just b/c of the SI cover curse (they have 5 covers with 5 different teams depending on which part of the country you are in)... but SI picks KU to go all the way.



Having learned hard lessons last season, the young and talent-rich Jayhawks will leap to the top

Time after time, Kansas coach Bill Self told Brandon Rush to shoot. Time after time Rush passed. So Self, acting like a father ordering his toddler into a timeout, sent his 6'6" freshman swingman to a courtside treadmill and told him to run for 30 seconds at the highest speed and on the steepest incline. After he returned to practice, Rush continued to pass up open shots, and an exasperated Self sent him back repeatedly to the treadmill for more punishment. "That was the first time I had seen something like that," says Jayhawks guard Russell Robinson. "I was wishing Coach would do that to me so I could get more shots."

That was last December, when Kansas, a talented but callow team that included 10 freshmen and sophomores, was trying to rebound from a 3-4 start. Rush eventually got the message -- he broke out for 24 points in a rout of Kentucky on Jan. 7 -- but for the duration of the season Self used the treadmill as a teaching tool. He has continued the policy this fall. "Whatever our emphasis is that day, if they don't do it right, we make them run," Self said after a practice last month. "I felt they had to have a sense of urgency and know there will be repercussions."

The Jayhawks finally hit their stride in mid-January when, after dropping two of their first three Big 12 games, they won 15 of their next 17 en route to a 25-8 record, a share of the conference regular-season title and a Big 12 tournament championship. Kansas showed its youth again when it stumbled for the second straight year in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, losing 77-73 to No. 13 seed Bradley. But all five starters return, wiser and fitter, and with the addition of two McDonald's High School All-Americans the Jayhawks look like a team ready to take a giant leap forward. That's why they are SI's preseason favorite to win the NCAA championship.

KU gets the nod over Florida and North Carolina because, while those two teams have comparable talent, they are facing some formidable historical forces. In the last 32 years just one team (Duke in 1991 and '92) has repeated as NCAA champion, and while the Gators also have all five starters returning from last season, the last two champs to keep their starting lineups intact -- Arkansas in 1995 and Arizona in '98 -- both came up short. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels will rely heavily on a freshman point guard, albeit an immensely talented one, in Tywon Lawson. Since freshmen became eligible in 1972, Arizona's Mike Bibby ('97) and Syracuse's Gerry McNamara (2003) have been the only first-year players to shepherd their teams to a title from the most important position on the floor.

Rush, for one, understands well the nature of growing pains. As the younger brother of Jaron (who played for UCLA from 1998 to 2000) and Kareem (who played at Missouri from '99 to '02), Brandon arrived in Lawrence burdened by the notoriety of his surname (then KU coach Roy Williams ended his recruitment of Jaron after he criticized the program) and a dodgy academic past (Brandon attended four high schools). Self scored a coup when he signed Rush after the highly touted prospect took his name out of the 2005 NBA draft but concedes that most of what he heard about him was unflattering. "People told us he wouldn't work hard and would only stay for one year," Self says. Rush is more blunt when asked to describe the reputation that preceded him: "Lazy -- and stupid."

Rush admits he thought college would be "a jog in the park," but he was on campus less than a month before Self put him through a rigorous workout in Allen Fieldhouse for skipping a class. Once practice began, Rush's desire to please others fueled his reluctance to shoot. "I don't like people disliking me for any reason," he says. "I didn't want my teammates to feel like I shot too much."

Rush's 47.2% clip from three-point range suggests that he never totally shed his cautious approach, but he gradually became comfortable in his role as leading man. He topped the team in scoring (13.5 points per game) and rebounding (5.9) and became the first freshman in Big 12 history to be named first team all-conference. Rush further buttressed his self-esteem by earning a 3.6 grade-point average during the spring semester. While many observers assumed he would bolt for the NBA after the loss to Bradley, Rush decided to return to Lawrence after he received no guarantee that he would be drafted in the first round. "This is the first time Brandon has been in a situation where he's being held accountable in all facets of his life," Self says. "He likes college. I don't think he's looking to grow up on fast-forward."

Kansas took another positive step last December when Self moved freshman point guard Mario Chalmers to the wing and installed Robinson at the point. The move came after Chalmers, a 6'1" former McDonald's All-American from Alaska, committed six turnovers in just 11 minutes during a 69-56 win over California. Chalmers was so demoralized by his performance that he told Rush on the bus ride home that he wanted to transfer. The move to wing also took time for him to accept. "I wasn't happy [with the position switch]," Chalmers says, "but at least I was playing."

The change ultimately freed Chalmers to focus on his defense. He ended up being the first Big 12 freshman to lead the league in steals (2.7) and was the team's second-leading scorer (11.5). Robinson, a 6'1" junior whom Self calls "the pulse of this team," was also named to the conference's all-defense squad and finished fourth in the Big 12 in assists (4.6). The Jayhawks' intense perimeter D enabled them to hold opponents to a nation's-best 37.0% shooting from the field. Now, thanks to the arrival of Sherron Collins, a fleet 5'11" freshman from Chicago, Kansas will always have at least two (and sometimes three) point guards on the floor who can score, set up their teammates and apply withering pressure.

It is no coincidence that Kansas's late surge began at virtually the same time Self inserted Julian Wright into the starting lineup, on Jan. 25. A coltish 6'8" sophomore power forward, Wright is such a dynamic interior passer that KU assistant Danny Manning, one of the best-passing big men ever, marveled to Self, "Julian sees things even I don't see." Adds Texas coach Rick Barnes, "Wright was the difference for them in the second half of the season. He's so versatile and is such a tough matchup that he affected the game in a lot of different ways." Self hopes that Darrell Arthur, a 6'9" McDonald's All-American from Dallas, can progress along that same arc this season, especially since Kansas's starting center, 6'11" junior Sasha Kaun, will be out until early December with a right-knee injury.

After winning the Big 12 tournament title with an 80-68 victory over a Texas team that had walloped them by 25 points two weeks before, the Jayhawks did what many young teams do when they reach the NCAA tournament: They tensed up. "We probably have the goofiest team in the nation, but before that [Bradley] game nobody was even talking in the locker room," Wright says. That tightness proved fatal against a Braves team that had three seniors and two juniors in its rotation. "We had an us-against-the-world mentality for most of the year, but then in the tournament we acted like we were trying to protect something," Self says. "The loss was painful, but it was probably something we needed to feel because last year's team was not mature enough to make a run."

This season's older, wiser Jayhawks will prove that they're very much ready for a run -- and not just on their coach's treadmill. -- Seth Davis

11-14-2006, 04:00 PM