After getting offto a terrible start, the precocious Jayhawks have hit their stride and turnedtheir season around
Visiting teams atKansas's fabled Allen Fieldhouse have long been told to Beware the Phog; thisseason the Jayhawks' talented freshmen have come to beware the treadmill. Theexercise machine, capable of a 4:30-mile pace at a punishingly steep incline,occasionally sits alongside the court at Kansas practices as a motivationaltool. "It'll kill you," says coach Bill Self. "It's like runningstraight up a hill."
Freshman guardBrandon Rush, the Jayhawks' leading scorer, has been dealt numerous 80-secondsentences on the treadmill--but not for the kind of transgressions one mightexpect from a rookie. "We needed him to be more aggressive," Self says,"and if he turns down a shot in practice, he goes to the treadmill. That'shelped a lot." Rush, whom Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie already calls"the best player in the Big 12," has averaged 16.2 points in conferenceplay (14.3 overall) to lead Kansas back from a dismal start to a 18-6 recordafter Monday night's 64-49 win over Oklahoma State. One mark of how bare thecupboard was after the departure of three 1,000-point scorers from last year'steam (Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and Wayne Simien) is that Rush--with 344points in 24 games--is now the Jayhawks' career scoring leader among currentplayers. Self has started three freshmen and two sophomores in the last sevengames, giving Kansas the greenest team in the AP poll, which the Jayhawksentered this week at No. 23.
In addition toRush, who declared for the NBA draft out of high school before withdrawing,Self's highly regarded recruiting class included McDonald's All-Americans MarioChalmers, Micah Downs (who has transferred to Gonzaga) and Julian Wright. Butit wasn't precocious enough to keep Kansas from bumbling to a 1-2 record at theMaui Invitational (the lone win coming against Division II Chaminade), and thensuffering losses to Nevada and St. Joseph's in the following two weeks. "Weweren't the team in November that we thought we were going to be," saysSelf. "But I told the guys numerous times, 'We're going to be fine. Byconference play we'll be tough to deal with.'"
Sure enough, theJayhawks are now 9-2 in the Big 12, and just one half game behind Texas forfirst place. So how did Kansas go from left-for-dead in early December to ateam no one wants to face just two months later? The obvious answer is a littlelineup tinkering. Self started the season with a backcourt of senior JeffHawkins at the point and sophomore Russell Robinson at shooting guard, withChalmers backing up Hawkins. But in early January, Self moved Chalmers, aprolific high school scorer, into the starting lineup at shooting guard andmade Robinson his playmaker. "Everything started to click then," saysRobinson.
Both players'scoring averages have ballooned: Chalmers's has jumped from 6.8 points per gamein nonconference play to 15.3 in the Big 12, and Robinson's has gone from 6.5to 11.1. But the two have also become a formidable defensive duo; theirperimeter pressure is a major reason the Jayhawks lead the nation in field goalpercentage defense (36.3%).
In addition tothe backcourt switch, Self also began giving more minutes to the wildlyathletic, 6'8" Wright as an undersized power forward. But the baby Jayhawkshave undergone an equally important psychological makeover as well. "Theywere thinking too much," Self says of his youngsters. "We needed themto play with reckless abandon."
The freshmen havegotten less tentative with every game. In their improbable rally from a16-point second-half deficit to beat then No. 19 Oklahoma on Feb. 5, Rushnailed two big threes down the stretch, Wright added a key putback slam, andChalmers hit the game-winner on a floater in the lane with 20 seconds left."I looked at Coach, and he wasn't signaling for a timeout," Chalmerssays, "so I just took the ball inside." His instincts took over. It wasexactly what Self had been waiting for.
Beware the CAA Inthe NCAAs
Colonial AthleticAssociation teams have a history of knocking off powerhouses in the NCAAtournament. In 1986 junior center David Robinson led Navy, a seventh seed, tothe Elite Eight. Remember Richmond? The Spiders upset Syracuse in 1991 tobecome the first No. 15 seed to take out a No. 2 seed. Four years later14th-seeded Old Dominion beat No. 3 Villanova in three OTs.
This season theCAA could send two teams to the NCAAs for the first time since 1986. Theodds-on favorite to make a run is George Mason, which is No. 28 in the RPI. ThePatriots (19-5, 13-2 in the CAA) were fifth in the nation in field goalpercentage defense (37.9%) and are well-balanced on offense, with five playersaveraging in double figures.
Another upsetspecialist could emerge from among these five:
Hofstra (18-4,11-3) Three guards, Loren Stokes (16.8 points per game), Antoine Agudio (16.5)and Carlos Rivera (13.0), have combined for at least 50 points in five of thelast eight games.
Northeastern(13-10, 9-6) Explosive senior guard Jose Juan Barea is second in the nation inassists (8.4 per game), while 6'9" sophomore Shawn James is tops in blocks(6.2 per game).
Old Dominion(17-8, 10-5) The Monarchs have wins this season over Virginia Tech, DePaul andGeorgia. Aussie big man Alex Loughton, the reigning CAA player of the year,leads the charge on both ends, averaging 13.6 points and a team-best 7.0rebounds.
UNC Wilmington(19-7, 12-3) The Seahawks are No. 45 in the RPI and have a veteran squad withthree senior starters--most notably John Goldsberry, a feisty defender whoaverages 2.12 steals.
VCU (16-7, 10-5)The Rams have the league's best three-point shooting (39.7%) and rank second inturnover margin (+3.27). Versatile 6'6" senior forward Nick George leadsthe team in scoring (17.0 ppg) and rebounding (5.2 rpg). --Julia Morrill
• Luke Winn'sPower Rankings at SI.com/collegebasketball.
An NBA scout evaluates the potential of Michigan Stateseniors Maurice Ager and Paul Davis. Through Sunday, Ager, a 6'5",202-pound guard, led the Spartans in scoring (18.9 points per game), whileDavis, a 6'11", 270-pound center, was tops in rebounding (9.3 per game) andfield goal shooting (57.4%). --Julia Morrill
"Ager (right) is so athletic, and he reallycompetes and plays hard, but he has limitations. He's not a great ball handler,especially in the open court, and he may be a little small for our league....He is a streaky shooter, but he has become a little more consistent.... He'sgot a great demeanor, he's a great kid, and he's pretty grounded.... He's afirst-round pick.
"Davis can really shoot. He has a high free throwpercentage [89.3%], which is unheard of for a guy that big.... He'll rebound,but he's not a great post player.... His greatest value will be as apick-and-pop guy.... By his third year in the NBA he will develop into athree-point shooter.... I've warmed to him, but I still think he's asecond-rounder."
JOHN BIEVER (KANSAS)
KIDDIE CORPS The Jayhawks have surged behind (from left) Wright, Robinson, Chalmers and Rush (with C.J. Giles).
GREG NELSON (AGER)
JIM LYTLE/AP (BUTLER)
BALANCING ACT Lamar Butler is one of five George Mason players averaging double digits.