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 his6'6" freshman swingman to a courtside treadmill and told him to run for 30seconds at the highest speed and on the steepest incline. After he returned topractice, Rush continued to pass up open shots, and an exasperated Self senthim back repeatedly to the treadmill for more punishment. "That was thefirst time I had seen something like that," says Jayhawks guard RussellRobinson. "I was wishing Coach would do that to me so I could get moreshots."
That was lastDecember, when Kansas, a talented but callow team that included 10 freshmen andsophomores, was trying to rebound from a 3--4 start. Rush eventually got themessage--he broke out for 24 points in a rout of Kentucky on Jan. 7--but forthe duration of the season Self used the treadmill as a teaching tool. He hascontinued the policy this fall. "Whatever our emphasis is that day, if theydon't do it right, we make them run," Self said after a practice lastmonth. "I felt they had to have a sense of urgency and know there will berepercussions."
The Jayhawksfinally hit their stride in mid-January when, after dropping two of their firstthree Big 12 games, they won 15 of their next 17 en route to a 25--8 record, ashare of the conference regular-season title and a Big 12 tournamentchampionship. Kansas showed its youth again when it stumbled for the secondstraight 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 theaddition of two McDonald's High School All-Americans the Jayhawks look like ateam ready to take a giant leap forward. That's why they are SI's preseasonfavorite to win the NCAA championship.
KU gets the nodover Florida and North Carolina because, while those two teams have comparabletalent, they are facing some formidable historical forces. In the last 32 yearsjust one team (Duke in 1991 and '92) has repeated as NCAA champion, and whilethe Gators also have all five starters returning from last season, the last twochamps 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 afreshman point guard, albeit an immensely talented one, in Tywon Lawson. Sincefreshmen became eligible in 1972, Arizona's Mike Bibby ('97) and Syracuse'sGerry McNamara (2003) have been the only first-year players to shepherd theirteams 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 hissurname (then KU coach Roy Williams ended his recruitment of Jaron after hecriticized the program) and a dodgy academic past (Brandon attended four highschools). Self scored a coup when he signed Rush after the highly toutedprospect took his name out of the 2005 NBA draft but concedes that most of whathe heard about him was unflattering. "People told us he wouldn't work hardand would only stay for one year," Self says. Rush is more blunt when askedto describe the reputation that preceded him: "Lazy--and stupid."
Rush admits hethought college would be "a jog in the park," but he was on campus lessthan a month before Self put him through a rigorous workout in Allen Fieldhousefor skipping a class. Once practice began, Rush's desire to please othersfueled his reluctance to shoot. "I don't like people disliking me for anyreason," he says. "I didn't want my teammates to feel like I shot toomuch."
Rush's 47.2% clipfrom three-point range suggests that he never totally shed his cautiousapproach, but he gradually became comfortable in his role as leading man. Hetopped the team in scoring (13.5 points per game) and rebounding (5.9) andbecame the first freshman in Big 12 history to be named first teamall-conference. Rush further buttressed his self-esteem by earning a 3.6grade-point average during the spring semester. While many observers assumed hewould bolt for the NBA after the loss to Bradley, Rush decided to return toLawrence after he received no guarantee that he would be drafted in the firstround. "This is the first time Brandon has been in a situation where he'sbeing held accountable in all facets of his life," Self says. "He likescollege. I don't think he's looking to grow up on fast-forward."
Kansas tookanother positive step last December when Self moved freshman point guard MarioChalmers to the wing and installed Robinson at the point. The move came afterChalmers, a 6'1" former McDonald's All-American from Alaska, committed sixturnovers in just 11 minutes during a 69--56 win over California. Chalmers wasso demoralized by his performance that he told Rush on the bus ride home thathe 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 atleast I was playing."
The changeultimately freed Chalmers to focus on his defense. He ended up being the firstBig 12 freshman to lead the league in steals (2.7) and was the team'ssecond-leading scorer (11.5). Robinson, a 6'1" junior whom Self calls"the pulse of this team," was also named to the conference'sall-defense squad and finished fourth in the Big 12 in assists (4.6). TheJayhawks' intense perimeter D enabled them to hold opponents to a nation's-best37.0% shooting from the field. Now, thanks to the arrival of Sherron Collins, afleet 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 theirteammates and apply withering pressure.
It is nocoincidence that Kansas's late surge began at virtually the same time Selfinserted Julian Wright into the starting lineup, on Jan. 25. A coltish 6'8"sophomore power forward, Wright is such a dynamic interior passer that KUassistant Danny Manning, one of the best-passing big men ever, marveled toSelf, "Julian sees things even I don't see." Adds Texas coach RickBarnes, "Wright was the difference for them in the second half of theseason. He's so versatile and is such a tough matchup that he affected the gamein 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 thisseason, especially since Kansas's starting center, 6'11" junior Sasha Kaun,will be out until early December with a right-knee injury.
After winning theBig 12 tournament title with an 80--68 victory over a Texas team that hadwalloped them by 25 points two weeks before, the Jayhawks did what many youngteams do when they reach the NCAA tournament: They tensed up. "We probablyhave the goofiest team in the nation, but before that [Bradley] game nobody waseven talking in the locker room," Wright says. That tightness proved fatalagainst 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 inthe tournament we acted like we were trying to protect something," Selfsays. "The loss was painful, but it was probably something we needed tofeel because last year's team was not mature enough to make a run."
This season'solder, wiser Jayhawks will prove that they're very much ready for a run--andnot just on their coach's treadmill.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Does KU haveenough depth inside without Kaun and forward C.J. Giles, who was dismissed forbehavior problems?... Can the Jayhawks replace Jeff Hawkins's perimetershooting?... Will they overcome their recent NCAA tourney first-round jinx?
Nov. 11 NorthernArizona
Nov. 15 OralRoberts
Nov. 21 TennesseeState*
Nov. 24 BallState‚Ä†
Dec. 2 atDePaul
Dec. 4 USC
Dec. 19Winston-Salem St.
Dec. 23 BostonCollege
Dec. 30 RhodeIsland
Jan. 7 at SouthCarolina
Jan. 10 OklahomaState
Jan. 13 at IowaState
Jan. 20 at TexasTech
Jan. 24 atBaylor
Jan. 29 atNebraska
Feb. 3 TexasA&M
Feb. 7 KansasState
Feb. 10 atMissouri
Feb. 14 atColorado
Feb. 19 at KansasState
Feb. 24 IowaState
Feb. 26 atOklahoma
March 3 Texas
*Las VegasInvitational (Lawrence, Kans.) ‚Ä†Las Vegas Invitational ‚Ä°Kemper Arena, KansasCity, Mo.
COACH: Bill Self(4th year)
Big 12 record:13--3 (T-first)
NCAA tournament:first round
GREG NELSON (RUSH)
WHAT'S THE RUSH? The only freshman in Big 12 history to be named first-team all-conference, Rush put off turning pro and returned to polish his game.
DAVID BERGMAN (ROBINSON)
GLUE GUY Self calls Robinson, who helped the offense gel when he moved to the point last season, "the pulse of the team."
JOHN BIEVER (2)
FAB FOUR An impressive quartet of returning starters--(from left) Wright, Robinson, Chalmers and Rush--has Self fired up.