I’ve been trying not to jinx them. I’m overdue for some KU basketball discussion, but I kept putting it off because I didn’t want to write good things about them and then have Missouri or K-State beat us. Now that we’ve gotten through rivalry week 2-0, I feel comfortable writing. Cue Colorado’s first win over us since 2003 on Wednesday…
I, like many KU fans, had a bit of a crisis of confidence after the Tennessee loss. On the one hand, I thought the loss would prove to the players that they still had a long way to go and they couldn’t expect to cruise through the season on their preseason ranking, their perceived talent, and their reputation. But the loss was distressing. It was a difficult task, playing a solid team on the road that was facing a huge emotional crisis, but it was the kind of challenge that great teams overcome. We made some runs, but caved at the end when it mattered most. Beyond their performance in that moment, the loss highlighted some flaws that had been apparent for some time.
The team has rebounded nicely since that loss. Solid wins at Nebraska and Iowa State. A sloppy win over a mediocre Tech team. A tough win over a very good Baylor team. And then last week’s sweep.
More importantly than the results are how the team has developed over the last three weeks. Cole Aldrich seems to have shaken off whatever was holding him back and turned into the force we thought he would be this year. He had been excellent defensively and on the boards all year, but his offense seemed to have regressed. He’s found his groove again, or so it seems. It will be interesting to see how he manages against Texas next week, probably the only team in the conference that can really challenge him with a lot of big bodies.
Another important development has been the reemergence of Brady Morningstar. He was the unsung hero last year, a guy no one expected to start all but one game but who consistently made important plays in big moments. It seemed like he would be an key role player this year, coming off the bench to spread the defense or help cool off a hot shooter. Instead, with both Tyshawn Taylor and Xavier Henry struggling, inserting him into the lineup has given the offense its best flow of the year. He knows how to move the ball, when to take the shot, and always seems to be in the right spot.
Tyshawn has been the biggest disappointment of the year, in more ways than one. His off-the-court issues have been disturbing, going back to the brawl with the football team. His play has been erratic, at best. I had heard in the offseason that he was playing with a different level of confidence, almost a brashness, that he didn’t have before. I think his head may have gotten too big. He has talent and can do some things, but he’s not yet a complete player that can dominate a game. If he can accept his role coming off the bench and stop turning the ball over, I think he can still be an asset. Sherron Collins might be the perfect example for him, as Collins stepped aside two years ago for Russell Robinson. One play aside, he played quite well on Saturday, so perhaps he’s coming around to being the top perimeter guy off the bench.
Henry has been a mild disappointment. I’m hoping he’s just in the midst of a freshman funk that he can work his way out of. He was so good early; his shot looked effortless and he routinely got to the basket. People have learned that, like Brandon Rush, he can only dribble well with one hand. However, his defense has gotten much better and his attitude seems fine. We don’t need him to score 18 a game as he was in December. Stay within the offense, be aggressive, take smart shots, and play defense. If he can go for 10-11 points a night, grab a few rebounds, and contain his man on defense that will be the perfect compliment to his teammates.
We don’t need Henry to be huge because of the amazing development of Marcus Morris. I don’t remember a player who has turned himself around as much as Marcus has. A year ago, remember, I was lobbying for him and his brother to transfer because of their attitudes and poor play. I am officially apologizing to the Morrises for not having faith in them. Marcus has turned into an all-conference caliber player. It’s obvious he spent a lot of time with Danny Manning over the summer. He scores, he rebounds, he plays solid defense. Most importantly, though, is the change in his attitude. He’s calm and cool during games. Early in the year I noticed a few opponents trying to get under his skin. He just smiles and walks away and scores on them the next time he gets the ball. That comes not just from making an effort to change his demeanor, but also from playing with confidence and strength instead of fear and passivity.
While not as dramatic, all that goes for Markieff as well. Finding those versatile, athletic 6’8” guys is one of the great recruiting gets for any coach. Bill Self has two of them.
And then there’s Sherron. He’s moved into the pantheon of all-time KU greats. There haven’t been many players with his heart and desire to win. He doesn’t always deliver, but you’re surprised when he falls short. He willed the team to the win over Cornell. He was the steadying force against Baylor. He didn’t have a great game for much of Saturday, but he hit three huge shots, including the game-clincher. Whatever happens this year, I know he’s going to give every bit of himself to help KU win and I’m going to miss him terribly next year. I just hope we don’t wear him out before we get to late March.
I wish Thomas Robinson and Elijah Johnson were getting a few more minutes, because I love their potential. But the rotation works and it seems like they’re both soaking up everything in practice and games and will be ready for their turns next season.
So here we are on February 1 and KU has a two-game lead in the Big 12, with a road win at K-State. The Texas game next Monday is still huge, but the K-State win gives KU a buffer that prevents it from being a must-win. They still have to travel to Columbia, Stillwater, and College Station, so the conference race is far from over. But being up two games this early is a good place to be.
The team still has a lot of work to do. But the emergence of Brady and Marcus and a revitalized Cole means it is less important for Tyshawn and Xavier to make radical changes in their output. If those two can steady their performances, though, this team is fully capable of living up to their preseason hype.
Oh yeah, Rock Chalk, bitches.