When Bill Self recruits a player to Kansas, any player, he begins by putting into perspective what basketball means at the school. He will say, "Look, I am never going to be the greatest coach at Kansas. And you are never going to be the greatest player. So we might as well get that straight right off the bat."
Yes, well, it's different at Kansas. That's a big part of this team's story. Expectation. The state tourism slogan is Kansas: As big as you think. Jayhawks basketball is even bigger. The school's first coach was James Naismith, who started the program less than a decade after he invented the game. Naismith's disciple Phog Allen may have been the most influential coach in college basketball history, not only for what he did at Kansas (win 590 games and three national championships) but also for what he did for Kentucky and North Carolina (teach a couple of players named Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith). Allen's best recruit, Wilt Chamberlain, was called the greatest player who ever lived before he played his first game with the Jayhawks.
Things get blown up pretty big at Kansas. The Jayhawks' last national title, in 2008, was sealed by a last-second Mario Chalmers shot that is remembered as Mario's Miracle. The Kansas championship team before that, in 1988, revolved around local legend (and current assistant coach) Danny Manning. That team is remembered as Danny and the Miracles. In Kansas—not unlike in Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina—college basketball is religion. But only in Kansas are championships continuously miraculous.
Enter the 2009--10 Jayhawks. Like Self says, when they're good ... wow. At different times this season their best player has been a senior, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman. How many teams can say that? How many teams could ever say that?
The senior is the indomitable Collins, who has already won more games than any player in Kansas basketball history. Collins grew up on the tough streets of Chicago—his father, Steven, was in jail—and his most obvious quality is that he thrives in the biggest moments. It was his steal and three-pointer in the 2008 national championship game against Memphis that set up Mario's Miracle. He leads the Jayhawks in scoring (15.3) and assists (4.3), but that almost seems beside the point. When Kansas got manhandled at Oklahoma State for its first conference loss of the season, it was Collins who took the blame. "I didn't have my team ready," he says.
The junior is Aldrich, who averages 11.3 points and 9.7 boards and set the school record for most blocked shots in a season (110). Alltime Division I winningest coach and current ESPN analyst Bob Knight, among others, believes Aldrich is the essential player on this Jayhawks team because he can control the game on the offensive and defensive ends. "Cole makes us go," Collins says.
The sophomore is Marcus Morris, who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.3 rebounds a game since Big 12 play began. He's rangy, athletic and so active that he can demoralize teams with his ability to grab offensive rebounds. When Marcus tires or gets into foul trouble, Kansas can send in his only slightly less effective twin brother Markieff, who was probably the best player on the floor for much of the Kansas State game. "The twins, they're unbelievably bright players," Self says. "They see the game like coaches, they really do."
The freshman is Henry, who made no secret of the fact that he was coming to Kansas only because the age rule prevented him from going to the NBA. His has been an up-and-down season—freshman years often are—but Henry has been the team's best offensive player of late, averaging 16.6 points over the last eight games.
Those are the stars. But sophomore guard Taylor has game-changing speed, junior guard Morningstar provides tough defense and junior guard Tyrel Reed hits 44.9% of his three-pointers. And that freshman class. More than one NBA scout believes Thomas Robinson and Elijah Johnson are two of the best pro prospects on the Jayhawks. It's like Self found a genie and wished this team into existence.
"We have good players," Self says in one of his more classic understatements. "And we're a good team. I mean, I'm really proud of them. But...."