Editor’s Note: Tomorrow is Senior Day for the Kansas basketball program. Yep, around these parts, it’s a proper noun. Senior Day at Allen Fieldhouse. Here at The Brewhouse, we’re preparing a special essay for Senior Day… but for now, here’s an old look at the greatest KU class that never made it to Senior Day.
One was a point guard from Alaska with a sweet stroke and a chilly demeanor. One was a gangly forward from Chicago with a heart of gold. One was a 6-foot-8 mystery from the Northwest. And one was a member of the first family of Kansas City hoops, a misunderstood soul with superstar potential.
They arrived on campus together in the fall of 2005. Mario Chalmers, Julian Wright, Micah Downs and Brandon Rush. They might just be the most important recruiting class in the history of Kansas basketball. And tomorrow is their Senior Day — well, it would be if they were still here.
Of course, we knew from the start that the recruiting class of ’05 would never make it to Senior Day intact. They had too much talent, too much athleticism, too much of the greatness gene. But did we know that on March 6, 2009, the eve of Senior Day, they’d all be gone? Maybe not, but perhaps we should have.
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OK, here’s the problem. There’s no way to decide which Kansas basketball recruiting class was the greatest. First of all, what are the criteria? Wins? NCAA titles? NBA success? Do we factor in grades and intangible things like grit and integrity and loyalty?
So what’s the greatest recruiting class of all time? Is it the 1999 recruiting class that featured Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich? They won a ton of games, and went to two Final Fours. Each was picked in the first round of the NBA Draft, and each has his jersey hanging in Allen Fieldhouse.
What about the class of 1984? They went to two Final Fours, won a title in 1988, helped Larry Brown turn Kansas back into a national power, and of course, had a young man named Danny Manning.
You could make an argument for the 2001 class too. Aaron Miles, Wayne Simien, Michael Lee and Keith Langford won 110 games, went to three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, and they all graduated. Hard to argue with that.
What about Clyde Lovellette and his classmates? They won a title. Or better yet, how about the class of 1904, which featured a kid named Forrest C. Allen? You could make an argument that Phog Allen was the greatest recruit in Kansas history.
And then we come to the class of 2005. And I’m not sure what to think. The class certainly has a case. They helped Kansas win a title. They helped Bill Self become a Kansas legend in his fifth season. As Lew Perkins likes to say, they brought the swagger back to Kansas. And that’s not all they brought. Julian brought joy, Brandon brought highlights, Mario brought The Shot. Maybe they do have a case.
So I suppose it’s kind of odd to think that the greatest recruiting class in Kansas history was only together for 17 games.
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Micah Downs was the first to leave. For some reason, Downs never seemed to fit in at Kansas. Maybe he couldn’t handle competing with Rush for playing time, maybe he didn’t mesh well with the coaches, maybe he was just homesick. Whatever the reason, Downs packed up after 17 games and went back home to Washington. He’s at Gonzaga now, averaging 8.8 points per game.
Of course, Julian Wright was the next to leave. He played two years in Lawrence, and it seemed like Kansas fans had found their next sweetheart. A humble, hard-working kid with sublime skills, Wright could dominate, but he could also disappear. He was a player without a position, and it looked like, maybe, his skills were more suited for the NBA.
Wright had always said that he wanted to play at Kansas for three years, graduate early, then scoot off to the pros. When he walked off the floor after Kansas’ loss to UCLA in the 2007 Elite Eight, he reiterated these feelings.
But in his heart, he knew he had to leave after two years. He loved Kansas, but the riches of the NBA were too good to pass up. It was his time. Now, Wright is sitting on the bench for the New Orleans Hornets. He’s not playing much. And it’s been reported that the front office in New Orleans has been quietly disappointed in Wright’s development. Wright still tells reporters that he doesn’t regret the decision. Even when he sat in the front row at the Alamodome and watched Mario’s Miracle, he didn’t waver. He was at peace with his decision.
Rush tried to leave in 2007, too. We know what happened. A torn ACL deflated his draft prospects and he limped back to Lawrence for his junior year.
I still remember the first time I ever saw Brandon Rush play. It was at a Kansas City high school holiday tournament in 2002. Rush was an underclassman at Westport High then, but everyone knew who he was. That’s what happens when you are the younger brother of two the most famous Kansas City high school players ever — I’m, of course, talking about his older brothers, JaRon and Kareem.
Rush’s story is, perhaps, the most unbelievable. He came to Kansas with the reputation of a malcontent, the reputation of being immature and selfish. He left as a national champion. He’s in Indianapolis now, finally in the NBA.
And then there’s Mario. Little kids in Kansas will be acting out his shot for decades. And there’s not much else to say about Mario. He’s playing for the Heat now, and he’s starting as a rookie.
Of course, he’s not a star and he probably never will be. It looks doubtful that Rush and Wright will be either. Downs will be lucky to get a look in the D-League.
They’re spread across the country now. They didn’t make it to Senior Day. So maybe they can’t be the greatest recruiting class in Kansas history. It’s too bad. Senior Day would have been a sight.