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October 9, 2007

Slant Blog: Football, hoops talk of town

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KU's top two sports creating national buzz

As if Jayhawk weren't excited enough with the KU football team's continued success in 2007, including Saturday's win at Manhattan over rival Kansas State, earning the Jayhawks a No. 20 national ranking, Kansas faithful are now less than a week away from Late Night in the Phog, which will officially kickoff the 2007-08 Men's Kansas Basketball season.

The upcoming year is being hyped as Kansas returns everyone except Julian Wright (2007 NBA lottery pick) from a team that tallied 33 wins before falling to UCLA in the Elite Eight.

Head coach Bill Self has a loaded roster, but will have a few questions surrounding his squad entering the year. The most pressing issue is whether star guard Brandon Rush can rebound from a knee injury which forced him to abandon his NBA dreams for at least a year.

Coming back to Kansas could be a blessing in disguise for Rush, who was considered a late first round pick, to possibly even an early to mid-second round selection, which would have put any financial dreams into jeopardy as second-round picks aren't guaranteed contracts.

Self recently stated that his leading scorer completed 90-percent of the drills in the teams' annual boot camp, only being conservative on making harder cuts during the running portion of the camp (which by all accounts is pretty much what the camp is about). Still, 90-percent of the drills four months after surgery is excellent news for both fans and the staff.

It is yet to be determined as to whether Rush's injury will make a negative impact on his athleticism, but what it will do is force Rush to become a little more aggressive in his scoring. Bottom line is NBA scouts who knew the Brandon Rush pre-injury, will want to make sure that player still exists. Questions surrounding his ability to take over a game already hurt his draft stock as a sophomore looking to come out, but with a knee injury and a summer of rehab, scouts will have an eagle eye on KU's junior stud to see if any lingering effects take a toll on his performance and ability to play at the next level.

As good as he may be at knocking down the outside shot; his athleticism is his best quality. Any decline in that department could hinder his stock as he eyes the 2008 draft.

Collins or Robinson? Robinson or Collins?

Fans around Jayhawk country continue to debate the possible starting five for KU. Self will likely continue his, "whoever practices well, plays" stance, which would lead you to believe a rising star like Sherron Collins could be the starter depending on how the first few weeks of practice go.

Without question, KU talented sophomore point guard has the ability to play major minutes (which he will do, regardless of whether he starts or not), but does Self want to take the glue-guy, the leader of his team out of that starting spot and limit his minutes?

Russell Robinson is the type of player any coach in America would want. He may not be a 20-point scorer, but he is among the nation's best defenders, and plays as hard as any player who has ever stepped foot on a basketball court.

Robinson leads by example, and if there is one player who should walk to center court to shake hands with the opponent before a crowd of 16,300 jump up and down in anticipation of tip-off, it's the hard-nosed kid from New York.

In the end, on a team with so many players who get basically equal playing time, who starts and who doesn't is essentially overrated. It might be a big deal if you have five players who are getting 40 minutes a game, but with a rotation that goes at least nine-deep, Self has the option of throwing out multiple looks depending on the match-ups.

Speaking of starting

Freshman Cole Aldrich has had a productive first few months on campus and according to coach Self, performed very well during the two-week boot camp. In fact, Aldrich's effort impressed teammates and the coaches, creating some buzz on whether the McDonald's All American has the chance to overtake senior Sasha Kaun as the starting center.

Of course, Self may opt to start Darnell Jackson at one of the two post positions, the other going to Darrell Arthur, who has turned in maybe the most impressive summer of all, despite a stress fracture in his leg.

Having two natural centers, and two natural power forwards may cause Self to rotate two at each position, giving the Jayhawks balance down low.

Aldrich has displayed a solid mid-range jumper, which he may use more than most would expect, as his biggest adjustment to the college game will be the use of his body and positioning against bigger, stronger talent at the division one level.

The loss of Wright will certainly effect Kansas in certain aspects, but it might also give the Jayhawks a more balanced attack, as Wright often fell in as a 'tweener' who wasn't quite a power forward, but wasn't a good enough outside shooter to be consider a small forward or perimeter player. With Rush, and the combination of Jackson/Arthur, and Kaun/Aldrich in the post, KU has a very balanced inside/out attack on the offensive end.

For the early going, Kansas maybe run a three guard lineup while Rush returns to 100-percent, which shouldn't be too long after KU's opening game. Collins, Robinson, and Mario Chalmers present a formidable backcourt that easily ranks among the best in the country, so the three of them on the court at the same time is just scary.

Rush's return to action gives hands-down gives Kansas the top backcourt in the land, each providing KU with a different dimension to the game.

'Boot Camp' surprise

Maybe the biggest surprise of Self rigorous two-week training program, was the conditioning and effort from freshman Tyrel Reed. Reed was said to have won most of the running drills, and has proved not only during camp, but all summer long, that he is ready to make an immediate impact for Kansas.

Reed comes in probably a little underrated and should, at the very least, serve as the perfect competition for those in the regular rotation during practice.

Don't count him out though. Reed is talented enough to find his way on the court for fairly significant minutes. His heady play, court vision, and toughness gives him excellent balance at either the point guard or shooting guard positions. He is arguably the best shooter on the team, and rarely puts himself in position to make stupid mistakes with the ball.

Self was impressed with the overall conditioning of his players, which is a good sign as the start of practice nears.

Where do they rank?

Depending on which news service you follow, Kansas will enter the season anywhere from No. 1 to No. 10.

In all likelihood, the Jayhawks will fall somewhere between two and seven. Memphis and North Carolina seem to be the favorites for the top two spots, while KU, UCLA, Louisville and others battle for the remaining three spots among the top five.

As fun as preseason rankings are, it literally means nothing before teams have a chance to play. You could make an argument for any of the "top" teams as to who should be No. 1.

Talk of the town

Fans, especially those who follow every move the program makes, have started becoming weary of recruiting for the class of 2008.

Kansas is losing five players to graduation, and up to four to the NBA (almost guaranteed to lose Rush and Arthur). Self stated earlier in the summer that he will try to sign seven players. Through Saturday, KU's commitment list consisted of local star Travis Releford, who was basically a lock to attend KU all along.

As exciting as Releford's commitment was, fans began wondering where the other six players were going to come from, especially after DeAndre Liggins, Romero Osby, Greg Monroe, Terrance Henry, Tyler Zeller, and a handful of others either removed KU from their list, or committed elsewhere.

Those growing concerns received a little relief Sunday, as KU received a verbal commitment from 6-foot-6 guard Mario Little, who will join KU's 2008 roster via Chipola Junior College in Miranna, Fla.

Little will not only bring a talented game to Lawrence, but will bring what will be much needed experience to a team who will essentially be on the rebound after the eventual departures.

Little should be able to contribute right away, giving the Jayhawks athleticism and heady play on the perimeter. Unless one or both of Chalmers and Collins blow up and receive heavy interest from NBA scouts, Little will join the two current Jayhawks in KU backcourt, which should keep Kansas competitive.

The question mark now is who will join Aldrich and Matt Kleinmann in the post. Kaun and Jackson are among the five seniors, and unless Self receives another miracle decision from Darrell Arthur, his star forward will be shaking hands with Commissioner David Stern in June of 2008 while adjusting the hat of his new team.

The players who seem to be the most likely to join KU's 2008 class are true center J'Mison Morgan from Texas (receiving heavy interest from a number of programs, namely LSU and Alabama), guard Willie Warren (favoring Oklahoma, Kansas, and Connecticut, although OU seems to be the leader), forwards Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris (de-committed from Memphis, visiting KU's campus during Late Night), forward Quintrell Thomas (recently visited Kansas), and guard Tyshawn Taylor (will likely choose between Virginia Tech and Kansas).

The next three to four weeks should be very telling as to what shape KU's 2008 class takes.




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