SI's Davis picks KU to cut the nets in April.
Postcard from Kansas
Talent-laden squad my pick to win the NCAA title
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- I was sitting courtside in Allen Fieldhouse Monday night when I mentioned to Chris Theisen, Kansas' sports information director, that even though it was cool outside the arena felt a little bit muggy. Chris told me it was because the Fieldhouse has no air conditioning, which is why it gets so hot on game days. Just then, KU coach Bill Self plopped down in a chair next to us, flashed that charming hillbilly grin of his and drawled, "Well, if you sit in just the right place, you can actually catch a nice breeze in here."
It was a light exchange that would be commonplace during an idle moment in the empty gym. What made it notable, however, was the fact Self was actually in the middle of conducting a very rigorous practice. The workout had entered a brief lull while the players shifted off to separate work stations, giving Self the chance to sit down and chat. At certain junctures the coach stopped talking to bark out an instruction -- "Julian, jump to the ball!" -- but then he'd quickly return to our light banter. After about 10 minutes, the practice picked up again, and Self was back on the court putting his players through their paces.
You can see why Self has a reputation for being one of the most approachable, accessible and likeable coaches. But don't let the hillbilly charm fool you. He can just as quickly shed that grin and morph into an exacting, dyspeptic, slightly whiny coach who brooks no lapses from his players. I watched Kansas practice twice this week, and believe me when I tell you that when those players are on the court, they don't find Self easygoing at all.
This dynamic is why I believe Self and Kansas are such a great fit. KU fans have been rightly spoiled by the program's success, but they're also the most knowledgeable and supportive fans in the country. So it helps that Self is such a bulldog on the recruiting trail. Remember, this is the guy who loaded Illinois with the players who went 30-2 two years ago and lost in the NCAA championship game to North Carolina.
Self has recruited four former McDonald's High School All-Americas to his current roster. By my count, KU has three surefire pros (sophs Brandon Rush and Julian Wright, plus freshman Darrell Arthur) and at least three others who have a good chance at pro careers (guards Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins). Two days before my arrival in Lawrence, Self hosted Medford, Ore., native Kyle Singler, a 6-foot-9 wunderkind who I believe is the best player in the Class of '07. (Singler will choose between Kansas, Duke and Arizona in the next few weeks.)
Self doesn't just get good players. He also knows how to coach. Not for nothing is he the only man ever to take three schools to the Elite Eight (Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas). Self is catching a little heat these days because the Jayhawks lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament the past two years, but people forget he had the Jayhawks in overtime in the 2004 Regional Finals before losing to Georgia Tech. He preaches toughness and unselfishness, and his teams have always reflected that.
Finally, as demonstrated by the practice scene described above, Self is a genuinely low-maintenance guy who does not let external pressures encroach on his life. I've seen him take losses very, very hard, but unlike many of his peers, Self doesn't obsess over his setbacks or his critics. He knows his team has high expectations, but he's not going to go Lou Holtz on you and say those expectations are not warranted.
"We've been here three years and we won the league twice, but I know that at Kansas the standard isn't what you did in the league. The standard is [what you do] after the league," he said over a steak dinner at Ten restaurant in Lawrence Sunday night. "I don't mind the expectations because I know we have a lot of guys who can make plays. As a coach, my only thought is, what is our ceiling and how close can we get to it?"
After watching the Jayhawks practice on Monday and Tuesday, I can assure you their ceiling is sky high. This team is loaded with thoroughbreds; my neck is still sore from watching them press and run nonstop. KU led the nation in field-goal percentage last season, but the scary thought is this team should be even better defensively. Self is intent on pushing the pace to take advantage of his players' multifaceted skills in transition.
For instance, on the last play of Tuesday's practice, Wright, the long-armed 6-8 sophomore power forward from Chicago, ripped down a rebound, speed-dribbled to lead the fast break, faked a pass to his left, took off from the foul line and flipped in an easy layup. High ceiling, indeed.
Kansas' ability to score off its defense will be critical because if there's a question about the Jayhawks, it's their ability to score in the halfcourt. Neither Chalmers nor Robinson is what I would consider a pure point guard. (Collins is a pure point and he's really, really good, but he's still a freshman and will probably come off the bench.) This team also doesn't have a consistent scoring threat in the post, though the 6-9 Arthur could become one. Wright and Rush are good passers, but they tend to be a little too loose with the ball when running Self's offensive sets.
On the other hand, Rush, the team's leading scorer (13.5) and rebounder (5.9) last year, made 47.2 percent from three-point range as a freshman. If he and the three guards -- not to mention Wright, who showed a surprisingly efficient offensive touch in practice -- can consistently knock down long-range shots, that will make this team nearly impossible to guard. Given that the Jayhawks return all five starters from a callow team that won 15 of its final 17 games and captured the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles, it's logical to think they will again improve as the season wears on.
I guess I'm like everyone else in the state of Kansas. I expect big things from the Jayhawks this season. You might think that would put a lot of heat on a head coach, but Self always seems to find the spot with the cool breeze.
Herewith my breakdown of the Kansas Jayhawks:
Heart and soul: Robinson. Ideally, I'd put Rush in this category, but unfortunately he is still a little too quiet and deferential. Robinson is not the vocal type either, but he gives this team a tough New York City swagger it otherwise lacks. Plus, he'll have the ball in his hands more than anyone else. Everyone I polled for my breakdown immediately gave Robinson as their choice in this category. He is the team's unquestioned leader.
Most improved: Chalmers. One of the main reasons Kansas struggled to a 3-5 start last year was the difficulty Chalmers had in making the transition from high school. Chalmers has attacked this preseason with much more strength and confidence than he did a year ago. His conditioning is vastly improved, and he continues to demonstrate a sweet outside stroke.
Glue guy: Sasha Kaun. It's easy to forget that Kaun, a junior center from Russia, is on the roster, but Kansas' opponents would be wise not to forget about him. Kaun isn't the most agile center around, but he's big (6-11, 245 pounds), efficient (56.2 percent on field goals last year) and experienced. He can knock down open shots, and because he's surrounded by so much talent he should get lots of clean looks.
X factor: Arthur. Self pulled off a recruiting coup when he added Arthur to the program last spring. Arthur was battling tonsillitis this week, so he spent a lot of time during practice tugging at his shorts. Still, I saw enough to know this kid has some astonishing gifts. He is a very quick repeat jumper, and while he's not much of a long-range shooter, he can score in a variety of ways around the basket. My sense is it will take Arthur some time to get his body to where he can make a regular contribution. If he gets there, KU will get that much closer to its ceiling.
Lost in the shuffle: Rodrick Stewart. I was inclined to go with 6-8 junior Darnell Jackson here, but that was before 6-10 junior center C.J. Giles blew off a morning workout this week and was essentially suspended from the team. Self is leaving the door open for Giles to return, but my guess is he's done at Kansas. That means Jackson, who might have redshirted, gets bumped up in the rotation. On the other hand, Stewart, a 6-4 junior from Seattle, averaged just 3.2 minutes per game last year. With Collins in the fold and clearly capable of contributing right away, it's hard to see how Stewart's minutes will increase.
Bottom line: Giles may be prone to inconsistency and immaturity, but he gave Kansas another long, athletic body up front. His absence will hurt. Still, making predictions isn't just about assessing talent. It's about forecasting where that talent will be in five months. I like where Kansas is, but I like where they are going even more. Until further notice, you can consider KU my pick to win the 2007 national championship.