Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Olympians and Collegians

Every time they come around, a sense of apathy washes over me.

"Is it that time again?"
"This couldn't possibly hold my interest this time."
"Winter sucks."

I suppose it's a combination of several things, really. February is usually a month of desperation. I'm constantly wondering how much longer it is before Spring arrives, or pitchers and catchers report. The last thing I want to give my attention to is a bunch of people wrapped up in parkas sliding around on some ice.

But then I watch a little. And I'm drawn in.

It's probably a combination of several other things, too. There are the joyous, proud, nervous faces on the athletes as they parade in during the opening ceremonies. There's the oddly intriguing spectacle of the opening ceremonies themselves. There's the fact that there is almost always someone to root for. And when someone wins, you realize that all their hard work and dedication and sacrifice has finally culminated in this once-in-a-lifetime dream come true.

Thankfully, that apathy runs off down the drain, happily replaced with a sense of perseverance, faithfulness and triumph. Somehow, the Winter Olympics have managed to win me over once again.


How on earth are freshman and sophomores this tough?

Apparently, because Bill Self wants them that way.

After a knock-down, drag-out battle in Stillwater last night, the young Jayhawks found themselves with another notch in the "W" column. And Self has molded a team full of raw talent and no experience into a team that will fight until they have the result they're looking for: wins. While many were questioning his methods early on, Self implemented his plan and his system until everyone was on board. Turning the ball over too much? Take a seat on the bench. Not putting in a full effort in practice? You're not starting. Taking ill-advised shots? Let's see what the walk-ons can do in your place. Self didn't take any guff from anyone early on and set the tone for this young team by making sure everyone knew they had to give their best effort at all times. And now it's paying off.

Eight straight wins have the Jayhawks ranked, within a half game of first in the Big XII and looking like a very dangerous NCAA tournament team. Would I have believed you if you told me this is how our season would look after KU's early-season failures? Not a chance. I figured this would be more of a "throwaway" season, just getting minutes and experience for the young guys and sacrificing wins in the process. Well, the experience has been gained, the minutes have been played and now the wins are starting to pile up. And in doing so, Bill Self has proven himself to be the best coach in the conference this year, hands down, and is slowly rebuilding his reputation, damaged after last season's 1st round tournament loss to Bucknell.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Break It Down For Me, Fellas

Last night's game brought me back to a more comfortable state of being -- nitpicking about 20-point wins. The Jayhawks have been on such a roll, winning 6 straight and 13 of 15, that they're starting to feel like the KU teams I've been used to over the last 10 years or so. A win is a win, but when you're gunning for a championship you want to see as few mistakes as possible. With that in mind, it feels like a good time to break down the progress of each player over the course of the year, with notes about their performance in last night's game.



*Jeff Hawkins

Last Night--Hawkins did what the perfect backup guard should do: play tight defense, not turn the ball over and hit the occasional open shot.

Season--Though fairly inconsistent through the non-conference season, Hawkins has finally found his place on this team. He (usually) doesn't try to do too much, as evidenced by his zero turnovers in the last five games. He'll take the open 3-pointer when it's available and clamps down on the man he's defending. His willingness to stay within his given role is the best way he could exert his senior leadership.

*Russell Robinson

Last Night--Robinson still couldn't seem to find his shot, but he did distribute the ball well and grabbed seven(!) rebounds. His quick hands on defense snared four steals and constantly disrupted the Nebraska guards.

Season--Russell Robinson has been the heart and soul of this team, in my opinion. After his noted travails last season, Robinson dedicated himself to improving his game and has done so measurably. His patience and wise decisions have been much-needed from his point guard position. While his scoring has been inconsistent, his defense has been top-notch all year long. No one looks forward to being guarded by Russell Robinson. Plus, his ability to drive to the basket and finish with a lay-up or a dish to the open man has been a great advantage to Kansas. If he can start knocking down the outside shot more consistently, he'll be nearly impossible to guard.

*Mario Chalmers

Last Night--Chalmers was a whirlwind versus Nebraska. He teamed up with Robinson to hound the Huskers on defense to the tune of four steals. He hoisted up shot after shot, until he started hitting them. He drove to the basket with relative ease time and again. He led the team in scoring with 20, but also in turnovers with four. He picked up the offensive slack on a night when Brandon Rush couldn't find his shot. And Coach Self didn't seem to have a problem with his 78-rpm style of play.

Season--Though not quite as fast as Illinois' Dee Brown, Mario Chalmers like to play at the same speed. Early in the year, that caused problems as his body was going faster than his mind. During conference play, he's been able to harness that energy more so and has been a major threat on both ends of the floor. He has the quickest first step on the team, enabling him to drive to the basket at will. His quick hands and sound defensive instincts create a formidable tandem. At this point, you can almost live with the turnovers. Almost. If this team wants to go deep in the tournament, he will need to pull in the reigns just a little to avoid the senseless turnovers he's been prone to commit.

*Jeremy Case

Last Night--Case played two minutes and missed a 3-point attempt. He's been ice-cold from 3-point range the last several games.

Season--While not receiving a large number of minutes, Case has proved to be a fairly dependable fill-in when the guards are in foul trouble or Chalmers has thrown the ball away enough to earn a temporary spot in Self's doghouse. His main asset, long-range shooting, has been hit-or-miss all year. In his defense, it's hard for a shooter to find his stroke with such sporadic playing time.

*Stephen Vinson

Last Night--Contributed mop-up duty and provided nothing either sensational or atrocious.

Season--Early on, Vinson was a crutch for Bill Self when the young guards couldn't figure out what was going on. Vinson provided solid, if unspectacular, guard play and provided key leadership-by-example. His hard-working ways exemplified what Coach Self wants from all his players, scrubs or stars. His minutes have declined in direct proportion to the young guards' continued maturity.

*Rod Stewart

Last Night--Received one minute of undistinguished garbage time.

Season--While his season has been shorter than the rest of the team's, we still haven't seen much of Stewart. His incredible athletic ability was on display during Late Night in the Phog, but the inspired play of the Chalmers, Robinson and Hawkins has left little in the way of playing time. Hopefully, his efforts in practice have contributed to the improvement of the other guards.


*Julian Wright

Last Night--Wright brought his two most valuable skills to the table again last night: High energy and excellent court vision. He hit the boards with enthusiasm and made sound decisions on when to shoot and when to distribute the ball. His lack of strength may have cost him a couple rebounds and put-backs, though.

Season--Much like Chalmers, Wright started the season in high gear and couldn't find the rhythm of the game. That no longer seems to be a problem. While his strength still leaves something to be desired, his quickness and energy have helped him compensate when banging with big boys in the low post. His ability to feed the big men is an invaluable resource and blends in with the offense seamlessly. The more Wright plays, the better he gets.

*Brandon Rush

Last Night--It was just one of those nights. His shots weren't going down and he turned the ball over, but Rush managed to play solid defense and grab seven rebounds. It's games like this that give weight to the opinion that he should stick around at least one more year.

Season--Easily, the team's most talented offensive performer. He has been asked to carry the load on offense from the beginning and he has rarely disappointed. While he seems somewhat reluctant to take over games, he has done a better job of stepping up when his team needs him. A scorer with his ability doesn't often have the humility to deflect attention from himself and distribute the ball for the best available shot, but Rush has it. His improved defense was a major factor in KU's win over Oklahoma when he bottled up Terrell Everett over the final minutes of the game. Thankfully, his mother and brother are lobbying for him to stay in school at least one more year.

Front Court

*Sasha Kaun

Last Night--Kaun played within himself, taking the shots that were appropriate and playing defense against an under-rated Aleks Maric. Kaun grabbed seven rebounds, blocked a shot and had a pair of steals in a yeoman's effort.

Season--Given his lack of experience in organized basketball, Sasha Kaun has played remarkably well. He doesn't have a great deal of low-post moves, but generally finishes strong on put-backs and open looks. His defense has improved as he has been able to bang with the big bodies of the Big XII and hold his own. His regular position in the starting five is a testament to his strong work ethic as Self regularly recognizes the players who put forth the most effort in practice with starting slots.

*Darnell Jackson

Last Night--In only 11 minutes, Jackson pulled down four rebounds and generally clogged the middle against Nebraska's front court. He ran the court well, but was the recipient of an errant pass that would have led to a fast-break lay-in.

Season--After coming back from his suspension, Jackson has been the most consistent big man for the Jayhawks. His strength, energy and sound decision-making came at a time when Kaun and C.J. Giles were struggling. His ability to take up space and fight for rebounds is an essential skill-set for a Bill Self-coached basketball team.

*C.J. Giles

Last Night--Giles was the most effective big man in the first half, scoring all eight of his points and displaying good decision-making that had been absent in recent games. The decision to play him only three minutes in the second half was a combination of his energy level being decidedly lower and the fact that Sasha Kaun matched up more favorably with the hulking Maric.

Season--Giles was one of the few players who started out strongly and has faded as the season hurtles forward. He was counted on to be a dependable scorer in the first few games, but took that charge with a little too much enthusiasm and found his way into Coach Self's doghouse. His confidence dropped, he missed a class and suddenly he wasn't getting any playing time. Fortunately, he received the wake-up call and worked hard enough to garner significant minutes in the last two games, playing well in each.

*Christian Moody

Last Night--Moody contributed four uneventful minutes off the bench in the closing moments of the game.

Season--Moody was leaned upon heavily in the beginning as a senior with more experience than anyone else on the team. While his skills are impressive for a former walk-on, they were not quite on par for a starter on a team with the tradition of Kansas. But Moody filled in capably, if not brilliantly, while the young post players found their respective grooves. Mercifully, he has spent most of his time recently on the bench as the young triumvirate of Kaun, Jackson and Giles fulfill the potential they were recruited for. Along with Vinson, Moody helped set the tone that Bill Self wanted for his young team.

*Matt Kleinmann

Last Night--Two insignificant minutes familiar to walk-ons in blow-outs.

Season--Though his minutes have been few, he has displayed an impressive low-post repertoire. His offensive skills seem to be as good or better than Moody's, even as a freshman. With his bright-red hair, he continues the tradition of walk-on underdogs that the students cheer for when games get out of hand.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Super Sunday

It was a Super Sunday.

Because of the big NFL championship?


Because of the much-anticipated commercials shown throughout the game?


Because the young Jayhawks pulled victory from the jaws of defeat?

Right on, sister.


While the Super Bowl ended up being classified as one level above "Dud" and the commercials were, for the most part, unspectacular, KU pulled out their most important victory of the season.

Going into the game, I figured the Hawks had a far more than reasonable chance of winning. Oklahoma didn't appear to be as good as they had been the last few years, even after defeating Texas. KU had been running on all cylinders with their offense finally catching up to their nationally-best defense.

But six days off left KU a little out of sorts. Thankfully, Oklahoma's offense is putrid and the Hawks were able to keep them in check (other than the uncharacteristic marksmanship from 3-point range).

So with a 3-point deficit at halftime, the Jayhawks didn't seem to be in any real danger of losing the game. That is, until Mario Chalmers started throwing the ball away as if it were infected with the bird flu. Add in the fact that Kansas' vaunted defense fell asleep momentarily and you got the feeling that the team had given up after Oklahoma had extended its lead to 16 points.

But then the defense started causing turnovers. And that kick-started the offense with some fast-break, easy buckets. And Brandon Rush's sight was restored after being inadvertently poked in the eye earlier in the game and he started knocking down shots. And all of a sudden, in a flurry of near-perfect basketball, KU had tied the game.

One of the key decisions down the stretch was to allow Rush to guard OU's point guard, Terrell Everett. Rush's height advantage paid off when he blocked Everett's shot late in the game and then managed to grab the rebound from his second attempt.

There were two other notable decisions that could have backfired on Coach Self: A) keeping Chalmers in the game regardless of his propensity to give the ball to the other team, and, B) playing C.J. Giles in crunch time. Giles, who had recently seemed to be as lost as the survivors of the popular ABC primetime drama, was able to pick himself up and change the outcome of the game with his shot-blocking ability. He blocked 3 shots and altered several more in the span of 12 minutes. Meanwhile, Chalmers kept up his defensive intensity and hit what turned out to be the game-winning basket.

All of this is not to overshadow the stellar play of Julian Wright. Self decided to stick with Wright, even after benching Julian against the physical Aggies of Texas A&M. Oklahoma was just as physical and Wright held his own throughout the entire contest. He was the top rebounder on the team and continued to show flashes of brilliance passing the basketball.

This was a game KU needed to win, not so much for the mark in the 'W' column, but more for the confidence of a young team. To be able to beat a ranked, physical, conference opponent after coming back from a double-digit deficit, the Jayhawks answered many questions regarding their toughness and ability to close out tight games. And Bill Self has started to answer the numerous critics of his coaching ability. With eight games left, the Jayhawks have put themselves in an excellent position with tournament time just around the corner.

So, a Super Sunday it was, indeed. The football season finally came to an end and the Jayhawks propelled themselves further in the race for Big Dance.