Great expectations await
August 12, 2006
By Gary Bedore
Older, battle-tested Jayhawks enter season with bull’s-eye on their backs
After a full year of playing “under the radar,” Kansas University’s men’s basketball team will be in everybody’s field of vision this season.
Unranked in the preseason and much of the regular season, the Jayhawks’ raw 2005-06 team of freshmen and sophomores tied for the Big 12 Conference title and won the conference tournament before falling to Bradley in the first round of the NCAAs.
This year will be completely different attention-wise with the Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, Mario Chalmers-led Jayhawks garnering mention in most everybody’s top five.
“Last year, being under the radar we played with basically no pressure, an attitude of, ‘Nobody expects us to do this; lets have fun and do it.’ We tried to build it that way,” KU coach Bill Self said.
“This year, playing with a bull’s-eye on the back forces you to play under pressure situations. They (KU players) need to operate under a little duress. They will operate under that in the NCAA Tournament. Having expectations, a bull’s-eye, doesn’t bother me at all.”
While the team goals remain the same — win the Big 12 title, conference tourney crown and ultimately the national championship — Self realizes this year’s squad is more well equipped than last year’s to claim national honors.
“We accomplished a lot of things last year, did a lot of good things. We didn’t spoil anybody in the postseason,” Self said. “Last year we entered the season hoping to be pretty good. This year I know we’re going to be good with focus, effort, hard work.
“This returning group of guys and a couple additions can accomplish great things. It could be an awfully fun team to watch.”
Still young in many respects — KU has no seniors on the roster — the Jayhawks are stacked with talent.
In fact, all five starters return from a 25-8 team, one that went 13-3 in the conference.
The leading returning scorer and rebounder is Brandon Rush, a 6-foot-6 sophomore who led KU in scoring (13.5) and rebounding (5.5) his rookie season.
“He was the premier young guy through the course of the season,” Self said of the Big 12 freshman of the year who was also voted KU’s team MVP. “I think he’s just scratching the surface of how good he can be. He improved through the course of the season — ballhandling, passing, shot selection, defense. Everything has improved so much. He could be a great, great player.”
Brandon Rush, who hit 47.4 percent of his shots — including 50 of 106 threes (.472) — had such a good year he considered declaring for the NBA draft.
“I’ve not accomplished what I want to accomplish,” Rush said. “I want to win a national championship before I go anywhere.”
Self expects better ballhandling from Rush this season and a greater ability to attack the basket with improved ability to go to his left.
“When he’s aggressive he’s really good,” Self said. “For him, he is just starting. He’s on an upswing. In everybody’s mind, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in his game.”
“I want to be improved on defense, shooting, everything,” Brandon Rush indicated.
By the end of the season Rush faced some competition for league frosh of the year from teammate Chalmers, a 6-1 guard who averaged 11.5 points off 44.5 percent shooting. Chalmers made 48 of 128 threes for 37.5 percent.
Chalmers blossomed after Russell Robinson was moved to the point and figures to play two-guard exclusively this season with incoming freshman Sherron Collins, a 5-11 sparkplug from Chicago, joining Robinson as a lead guard.