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
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
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
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."
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."
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.