Archive for Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Eephus Pitch

March 27, 2008

Alright, I have to write this column. It's never fun to admit you're wrong, but I'll gladly do so in regards to a column I wrote the week after the Jayhawks' ugly performance at Oklahoma State.

It was short-sighted, and I never should have questioned the heart of a group of college student athletes. That was unfair.

Look, I like this team and have all year except for the one stretch in the middle of the Big 12 schedule when KU looked completely lost. This group has never been anything but class as far as representing Kansas. There have been a couple of marginally bad apples, but the current group has never been a nuisance like, oh, a certain group of clubbin' athletes to the east.

I feel fortunate to be represented by them.

It's just that, back in February, the on-the-court product I saw didn't reflect a group of upperclassmen. It seemed like a group of NBA hopefuls who, although seemingly unselfish to a fault, did not know what their roles were.

Now it seems the uninspired stretch of play was just what the Jayhawks needed to get an identity.

All along these players have said they care not for personal accolades or individual success, only about winning a national championship. That is the model of team character every coach hopes for.

But the team identity was forged in the games following the Oklahoma State game when certain players - mostly Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Mario Chalmers - realized they had to be more selfish.

Brandon Rush has to produce both for himself and for the team. It's no secret he would have bolted for the NBA last year if not for an ACL injury. And who could blame him?

Rush's biological clock is ticking. The 2008 NBA Draft is 11 days prior to his 23rd birthday. Drafting on potential, and such is the NBA draft, teams are probably already reluctant to take a 23-year-old with a first-round pick. They'd rather have a 19-year-old player with the same or slightly less skill level. If he doesn't go this year, his stock will fall based on age alone so this is probably his final chance to make first round money out of college.

And Rush knows this, which may be one reason he is finally playing like the best player on the team.

The epiphany, for Rush, was the semi-finals of the Big 12 tournament against Texas A&M. Rush shot the ball a total of 21 times, including 5-8 from the 3-point line and 5-5 from the free throw line, totaling 28 points. That performance would give anybody confidence, and it showed him he could be the ringleader.

Then in the following game, Darrell and Rio both played two of the best games they've had all year.

Chalmers was the reason Kansas won the game, answering every D.J. Augustine three ball with one of his own. He turned in his most complete stat-line of the season, with 30 points, six rebounds while going eight of 12 from the 3-point line. He shot 66 percent from the floor and single-handedly kept the Jayhawks in the game.

Thank goodness his dad is on KU's bench, which may entice him into staying put another year.

But speaking of bolting for the NBA, who really cares if all five starters head to the land of inflated salaries if they win the national championship. I wish nothing but good things on all these players, and if they deliver a national championship, they've done enough for me.

I came oh-so-close to experiencing the thrill of a championship being brought back to Lawrence when I was a freshman in the spring of 2003. After the Jayhawks beat Marquette to advance to the championship, Massachusetts street was the equivalent of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. I can only imagine what it would be like if the Hawks win it all.

Some people may say I'm back on KU's bandwagon, and maybe it seems like that. I gave up all hope after that Oklahoma State game. But that stems from the frustration of being disappointed year after year when the Jayhawks are one of the best teams during the regular season and then get knocked off before they should.

Be it Bucknell or Bradley, it's been a rough stretch for Hawks fans in recent years. Roy Williams came up short of delivering a national championship, then went to North Carolina and got one in his second year. Last year the Jayhawks were a better team than UCLA, but got beat in the Elite Eight because they couldn't make layups.

This weekend we'll see, and I hope for KU students, alumni, fans, the players and Bill Self that this team plays to the potential I saw in the Big 12 tournament.

A program that has been among the nation's elite in the last 20 years needs a Final Four, and this is its best chance before the talent pool shrinks significantly.

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