The motivation for everything that has taken place at Kansas this past year took hold on a Friday night last season in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
It was March 27, 2009 when Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas drove into the lane and hit a short jump shot. On his way to the basket, Lucas was bumped by Kansas point guard Sherron Collins, a foul was called, Lucas hit the free throw that gave the Spartans a three-point lead, and Michigan State was on its way to the Elite Eight — and beyond.
The Spartans eventually lost to North Carolina in the national championship game, but the season ended there for the Jayhawks. The headline back home in Lawrence was “Bitter Sweet 16.” And Collins, who had done so much to help Kansas win the national championship in 2008, took it all on his shoulders.
Collins thought about that loss constantly during the off-season. And when the Jayhawks gathered last fall to begin a new season, it was still eating away at him.
“That last loss is always something to remember,” Collins said. “I still wish I could play that one play over. I’d do it all different. One play and we gave it away. It left a sour taste in all of our mouths.”
A couple of weeks after that loss, at the annual Jayhawks awards dinner, Collins and center Cole Aldrich announced they were returning to Kansas instead of jumping to the NBA.
“I can’t wait till next year, when we go for another ring,” Aldrich said that night.
Now the Jayhawks are six victories away from that goal. As amazing as it might seem in this age of turnover, Kansas could win its second title in three seasons — with an almost entirely revamped roster. Kansas enters the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed overall, is 32-2 overall and has won 18 of 19 against conference opponents on the way to the Big 12 regular season and tournament championships.
The road back to Indianapolis will not be easy. The Jayhawks learned that Sunday night when the selection committee revealed the brackets and they were surrounded by tradition and success. Kansas is the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, a regional that includes No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Georgetown, No. 4 Maryland and No. 5 Michigan State (again). On top of that, Tennessee and Oklahoma State, the sixth and seventh seeds, are the only two teams to defeat Kansas this season.
Look for Kansas to defeat Ohio State in the regional final and join Syracuse, Kentucky and Villanova in the Final Four. The Jayhawks will avenge their 2003 championship game loss to Syracuse in the national semifinals and then beat Kentucky in the title game.
“There’s lots of challenges,” Kansas coach Bill Self told ESPN Sunday night. “I look at the bracket, and I know the committee does a fabulous job, I don’t think they did us any favors. But I’m sure every coach in the field probably feels the same way.”
The Midwest is loaded. But Kentucky, No. 1 in the East, could find itself playing Texas, a former No. 1 team — in the second round. West Virginia is No. 2 in the East. Duke, No. 1 in the South, might face No. 2 Villanova or No. 3 Baylor (a very underrated team), to reach the Final Four. Syracuse, No. 1 in the West, could struggle against Gonzaga in a second-round game and down the road could face No. 2 Kansas State or No. 3 Pittsburgh.
But not every coach has to look around his team’s region and worry about Ohio State’s Evan Turner, Georgetown’s Greg Monroe and Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez. That’s getting ahead of things for Self. Kansas opens with Lehigh and would face either UNLV or Northern Iowa in the second round. Self said that’s the approach the Jayhawks will take, starting with the first two-game mini-tournament.
The Jayhawks were ranked No. 1 in the preseason and have handled that pressure for an entire season. That says a lot about a team’s character and the chemistry on this Kansas team has been exceptional.
“Our guys have handled the pressures of being the hunted all year long very well,” Self said. “I think we usually get the other team’s pretty good shot.”
During the Big 12 tournament, Kansas joined Kentucky and North Carolina as the only programs with 2,000 all-time victories. With three NCAA championships and two other national championships already in the trophy case, the Jayhawks are accustomed to this level of success. But in the long history of the program, no Kansas player has ever won two national championship rings.
Collins and Aldrich, reserves on the 2008 team, could become the first to gather that much jewelry.
“To be able to go down in history like that, it’s a lot of motivation,” Collins said. “It’s always in the back of my head. How could you not think about it?”
As each went through the NBA decision process last April, it practically became a group project. The two checked with each other on a daily basis and with each conversation they seemed to convince themselves the best thing would be to stay and pursue history.
“He’s the biggest goofball ever,” Collins said of Aldrich, who has emerged as a terrific shot blocker and one of the best defensive players in the country. “Two years ago when all the other guys were here, he was a freshman and he really didn’t interact too much. As our roles changed, we had to be the best of friends. We had to be on the same page and we had to make sure everybody else was on the same page.”
Collins takes that leadership role seriously. Together with Aldrich they have become the classic building blocks for a championship team. The strength of their bond was obvious on Senior Night at Allen Fieldhouse. Collins was the only senior honored and as he gave his speech Aldrich had tears running down his face. But everybody in the building knew it was likely Aldrich’s final home game in a Kansas uniform as well. The junior center has the fundamentals – and more – for a terrific NBA career.
“It was also emotional for Cole,” Self said. “We didn’t talk about that because it’s Senior Night, not a Junior Night.”
Aldrich and Collins were all Self had left from the 2008 championship team after Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Russell Robinson and Sasha Kaun graduated or took off for the NBA. The two became the focal point of everything the Jayhawks did on the way to a 27-8 record in 2009. Although there was disappointment in a Sweet 16 exit, Self won national coach of the year honors for getting so much out of a team that was reloading.
Things are drastically different this season.
Twin forwards Marcus and Markieef Morris, often frustrated and mistake-prone freshmen last season, have matured and become part of a tremendous frontline. Marcus starts and is one of the most improved players in the country. There is a chance he could be headed for the NBA after this season.
Both players worked hard in the off-season, getting their bodies physically ready for the competition inside. Andrea Hudy, KU’s strength and conditioning coach, gets as much credit for their transformation as she did with Collins two years ago, when she helped him control his diet and maintain his proper playing weight.
Sophomore Tyshawn Taylor, in Self’s doghouse more than once this season for attitude problems, social network problems and his role in the fall fights with between basketball and football players, has been a more consistent contributor in the final month of the season. He plays an important role as a defender and can be a slashing scorer in the transition game.
The biggest difference between last year and this season is freshman Xavier Henry, who gives the Jayhawks a three-point threat and an athletic rebounder on the wing. Henry slumped midway through the season and Brady Morningstar picked up the slack with his solid basketball IQ, passing and defensive ability. Guard Tyrel Reed comes off the bench to provide additional three-point firepower and ball handling.
That gives the Jayhawks the best eight-man rotation in the country. Freshman Thomas Robinson comes in handy when the big men experience foul problems and freshman guard Elijah Johnson can run the point in a pinch. Self did such a good job recruiting, he could afford to redshirt guards Mario Little and Travis Releford, two outstanding prospects who just wouldn’t have found any playing time in a rotation this season.
Self admits the Jayhawks need to get more out of Aldrich offensively. There’s a good chance his teammates will look for him more during tournament play. At times he will need to ignore his unselfish tendencies and simply dominate inside. But other than that, and a tendency to have turnover problems, this is a well-oiled machine. Not as pretty as 2008, but very gritty and tough. That’s always a blessing in the tournament.
Those two losses came on the road to talented teams that needed victories to save their seasons at that particular point. Oklahoma State shot 60 percent against Kansas, a rare meltdown for a defense that doesn’t get enough credit. The Jayhawks rank second in the nation in field goal percentage defense and fifth in scoring offense, a winning combination that characterizes KU’s success in the simplest of forms.
In close games and on the road, when Kansas needs a champion to take over and make winning plays, the Jayhawks always turn to Collins. He is glad to accept the role. Self says there may have been players with more points or more assists in Kansas history but he’s not sure there’s ever been a better competitor to wear the KU uniform.
Six more victories in that uniform and the plan will be complete. This is the business Collins and Aldrich returned to complete. That second ring is calling them back to Indianapolis — this time to cut down the nets the way they did in San Antonio in 2008.
“That’s really what drives people,” Aldrich said. “We’re telling the younger guys that this is as much fun as you will ever have playing sports. It’s just so fun to be one of those teams in the Final Four with everybody back home rooting for you.”
Tough road or not, that’s what the Jayhawks expect to do.