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Senior Day Eve…

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.

● ● ●

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.

● ● ●

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.

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The story of Self

LAWRENCE | The story begins here, on Naismith Drive on a bitterly cold December night.

Start here, on the sidewalk, with a college freshman decked out in a blue T-shirt.

Can you see him? He’s walking fast, among a pack of disgusted fans. He is furious, talking nonstop to no one in particular.

“That was embarrassing,” he says.

The throng of fans, a jagged line of bundled-up fans, leads all the way back to the front of Allen Fieldhouse.

It is dark. And it is winter. And the Kansas basketball team has just lost a heartbreaker — 72-70 to Nevada on the first night of December in 2005.

“Are you kidding me?” the kid in the blue T-shirt says. “Nevada? Are you kidding?”

The pack of fans is quiet. There is no response. There is no reason to.

They had all seen the same thing. A lanky kid named Nick Fazekas had ravaged the Kansas defense for 35 points. And with the loss, Kansas had been humbled again.

They had started the season 2-3. But, of course, there was more.

This was Bill Self’s third season, his first without the leftover mainstays from the Williams era.

Simien, Langford and Miles were gone. J.R. Giddens had the left program, too. And his departure — the muddied result of a stabbing incident at a Lawrence club — had left a stain on the program

Can you see the freshman in the blue T-shirt?

“Nevada, are you serious?”

But, of course, there was more. Just eight months earlier, a 3rd-seeded Kansas team had fallen to Bucknell — yes, Bucknell — in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

And dating back to Feb. 14, 2005, Bill Self’s Jayhawks were 5-9 in the program’s last 14 games.

So can you see him, the kid on Naismith Drive? Can you hear him?

“It’s Bill Self, man,” he says. “This guy can’t coach.”

******

I thought of that story on Monday, as Kansas dismantled Texas 80-68 in Austin to improve to 23-1 and 9-0 in the Big 12.

How did we get here? How did we get from that angry young freshman on Naismith Drive to here.

Here, Bill Self is coaching the No. 1 team in the country. Here, Self is on track to lead the Jayhawks to their sixth-straight Big 12 title. Here, Self and Kansas are just 22 months removed from a National Championship — 22 months removed from The Shot.

KU has an All-American candidate at point guard, an All-American candidate at center, and a future first-round draft pick on the wing.

And on Saturday, Self and Kansas will welcome Iowa State to Allen Fieldhouse — a building in which they’ve won 55 straight games.

And so Kansas will most likely win, and Bill Self will win his 400th career game.

How did we get here? How did Bill Self, at age 47, become the best college basketball coach in America?

There is no easy answer. Yes, Self can recruit. And yes, Self can coach. And so yes, Self wins.

But there has to be more to it, right?

There is no easy answer — but there are moments.

So let’s take a trip back in time, before Sherron cemented his place in history, before Cole Aldrich’s NCAA tournament triple-double, before Mario’s shot, before Brandon Rush tore his ACL, before Bradley and Bucknell… before it all.

*****

On the day we met Bill Self, the city of Lawrence was still in mourning, still reeling from the national championship game loss to Syracuse, and still in shock that Roy Williams was gone.

Roy? Gone? It was supposed to be forever, wasn’t it?

The press conference happened on a Monday — April 21, 2003 — one week after Williams boarded that private jet for Chapel Hill and said that he was a “Tar heel born” and he’d be a “Tar Heel dead”

One week after Wayne Simien stood outside Allen Fieldhouse and, with his emotions flowing, told reporters that he’d “given his arm” for Williams.

So with the wounds still gaping, with the heartache still fresh, Bill Self showed up in Lawrence and introduced himself.

“It’s a tough act to follow,” Self would say, mentioning Williams’ legacy of success. “But you know something, Larry Brown was a tough act to follow… And Ted Owens went to two Final Fours and was a tough act to follow… and Phog Allen was a very tough act to follow… and the guy who started it all, is the toughest of all acts to follow, Dr. Naismith.”

Self was the guy Kansas had wanted. And now they had their man. But there seemed to be one collective thought among Kansas people after Self’s first press conference.

Man, this guy sure does stutter a lot.

*****

So how did we get here?

Here’s another story about Bill Self.

Perhaps it will help us on our journey. Perhaps it won’t.

But if you squint really hard, you just might just be able to find the exact moment that Bill Self made the KU program his own.

The moment that Bill Self stopped being “that guy who took over for ROY WILLIAMS” — and instead, Roy Williams became “that guy who was at Kansas before BILL SELF”.

The moment came six weeks after the painful loss to Nevada.

KU was 10-4 at the time, and the freshman trio of Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright was still finding its way.*

But after losing to Saint Joseph’s at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 6, the Jayhawks had churned out six wins in a row, including a 73-46 mugging of Kentucky.

There was hope.

*As you probably remember, the fourth freshman that year, Micah Downs, skipped out and headed back home to Washington during Winter break.

But that hope would soon diminish as Bill Self — the man who couldn’t coach, the man who lost at home to Nevada, the man who wasn’t Roy — would have his worst weekend at KU.

It started on Saturday, January 14th, when a Jim Woolridge-coached Kansas State squad would walk into Allen Fieldhouse and beat Kansas 59-55. The loss would snap KU’s 31-game winning streak against K-State.

“It is disappointing,” Self would say, “because we are a better team than what we played today.”

Two days later, Kansas would travel down to Columbia, Mo., to play Mizzou on Big Monday.

This was the Christian Moody game.

Yes, you remember. With the score tied with 0.4 seconds left in regulation, Moody — the player whom Bill Packer called the “greatest walk-on ever” — had two free throws to win the game.

He clanked both.

Of course, this was also the game that Thomas Gardner would score 40 points.

That Missouri loss would drop Kansas to 10-6 and 1-2 in the Big 12.

You could hear the whispers. They circulated in dorm rooms and fraternity basements and on message boards.

Will this team even make the tournament? Does Bill Self know what he’s doing? Can this guy coach?

*****

We can’t know for sure what happened after that Missouri game. We just can’t.

But we do know this number — and it’s staggering.

Since KU lost in overtime to Missouri, Bill Self is 135-19

Yes, 135-19 — He’s won 87.6 percent of his games.

Of course, the numbers don’t stop there. And if you look closely, the numbers point to Bill Self being the best coach in college basketball.

During the six-plus seasons Self has been at the helm, Kansas is 192-41 (an 82.4 winning percentage)

During the same period, Roy Williams is 189-48 at North Carolina. Coach K is 190-44 at Duke. Jim Calhoun is 172-55* at Connecticut.

*We should note that John Calipari, who won many games at Memphis before taking over at Kentucky before this season, is 203-39 during the same period. Of course, we’ll also point out that Calipari racked up nearly half of those wins playing in a picked-over Conference USA.

There are other numbers to look at. Yes, Ol’ Roy won national titles in 2005 and 2009, and Billy Donovan won two at Florida, and Calhoun won another title at UConn in 2004.

But how about this?

Bill Self is 47 years old, and he will win his 400th game this season. We can’t know the future. We can’t know if he will eventually move to the NBA, or if he’ll eventually lose the passion to recruit and replenish his program.

But let’s assume that Bill Self stays at the college level for the next 10 years. And let’s say he averages 25 wins* per season.

If he does that, he’ll have more than 650 wins by age 57.

*It might be a little conservative to say that he’s going to win 25 wins per seasons. He’s averaged 28 wins over his first six seasons, and he’ll surely win more than that this year.

*****

Let’s end here, outside Allen Fieldhouse — the place it where it all began. Let’s walk on Naismith Drive, let’s walk past Phog Allen’s statue, and let’s go inside and see the 2008 National Championship trophy.

There’s a great story about Bill Self.

It was the morning after the Memphis game, the morning after The Shot, the morning after the confetti had dropped.

Self had a morning press conference in the Alamodome. Russell Robinson and Sasha Kaun were there, too.

They were still holding the NCAA championship trophy.

Self talked about how’d he been woken by a phone call from the president. He talked about how the team had celebrated together at the team hotel. And he tried to explain how the past night had changed his life.

And then he brought up a conversation that he’d had the night before with assistant coach Joe Dooley.

“Coach,” Dooley had said. “We got to find a way to do this again.”

Of course, the NCAA tournament can be the cruelest of sporting events.

Kansas fans know this better than anyone. But right now, it seems likely that in March, KU will be favored to win its second title in three years.

Bill Self is doing it again.

And one day, when it all ends, Bill Self will be one tough act to follow.

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Just thinking about Sherron

He looks like the old man in the rec league out there, the one who doesn’t quite understand that his legs and game have deserted him.

He weighs a little more than everyone else. Maybe that’s why. His back aches, and his quads aren’t firing. Maybe that’s why.
Whatever the reason, he is stumbling. This is ESPN Game Day. This is against a rival. This is Bramlage Coliseum. This is the Octagon of Doom or whatever the heck they’re calling it.

And Sherron Collins looks like that damn old man everyone at the gym would pay if he promised to never play again.

They take him out. They stretch his lower back. They massage his upper legs. When they put him back in the game, he hobbles around for a while longer.

So then it makes perfect sense that he makes the game’s most important shot.

***
A couple of weeks ago, a cousin of Nic Wise tried telling me that his Arizona point guard relative played the game of college basketball better than Collins.

Of course I laughed.

A friend of mine who graduated from Kansas State said point blank that he would prefer to have Jacob Pullen on his team rather than Collins.

Another K-State fan soon told him to shut up.

Reason prevailed during these arguments. Notions of basketball insanity were quickly dismissed. But a worry still lingers. These people erroneously questioned the value of Sherron Collins, and I fear it happens on a larger scale.

It seems strange. Collins is flashy, and he’s undersized, and he loves crunch time. He shoots the three. He often drives like a mad man. He’s been part of a national championship. He has what casual observers might refer to as intangibles.

These characteristics normally pop out for admirers of college basketball.

Yet the devaluation occurs. Sherron Collins, a fireball, one of the gutsiest players to wear a Kansas uniform, always does what he needs to do. The moment calls, and he’s there. Situations and games change, and he’s there.

***
Go back to early November, 2, 2006. In his first college game, an exhibition, Collins came off the bench for 24 minutes. He dribbled wildly, navigating his own way to the basket where he missed as many layups as he made.

He would score eight points and contribute five assists.

The crowd would pine for Shady.

Yep, Darrell Arthur did everything that night. He flashed NBA-ready post moves, jammed a couple of times and, of course, he introduced us to that nickname, Shady, one people would repeat for a long time*.

*And Dave Armstrong would improperly join the nickname with his last name, calling the big man “Shady Arthur” for the next two years and producing an untold number of cringes for listeners.

I remember walking home with a fellow group of KU fans. Someone talked about getting Arthur’s jersey. Another person told him not to bother because with that kind of game he would certainly leave after one season. Someone else said he couldn’t believe that he was a year older than Arthur.

What about Sherron? What about that 5:1 assist-to-turnover night? What about the way he darted into the lane, so quick that his own body sometimes couldn’t react?

***
Go back to April 2008. For the major KU fans, I suspect I don’t need to recount the date. However, for the less studious, it was Monday the seventh, and the game was the championship, and the opponent was Memphis.

We all know what happened.

Mario Chalmers stroked a fall-away three-pointer that sent the game into overtime. It would send the Lawrence crowds pouring out of Mass. Street bars and into the streets. It would send the “One Shining Moment” editor scrambling to make that the permanent ending.

Everyone, rightfully, raved about “The Shot.” Few noticed “The Pass.”

The pass came three months after a fight erupted in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Well, it wasn’t quite a fight. People who use the thesaurus too often would probably refer to it as a fisticuff or something.

It started when Boston College’s Rakim Sanders took offense to Chalmers. Chalmers had accidentally slipped into his chest, and Sanders started jawing at him, a little too close for just friendly chatter.

A second later, Collins was there. He could have knocked Sanders’ head off – and probably wanted to – or he could have played the role of peacemaker. In the end, he really didn’t do either. Darnell Jackson calmed the situation down.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about Collins. He ran from the other side of the court in a second to be there for his teammate. I had never seen a person move quite like that when no one else really saw the argument coming.

And it illustrated a point. When his team needed something, Collins would do anything, and he would do it reflexively, as though it were second nature.

And that’s what connects Boston College with “The Pass.” No man could have consciously done what Collins did on that play. It was reflex. It was natural.

View after view on YouTube can’t bring about a clear picture. One second, he’s dribbling, the next he’s falling and still dribbling and making a perfect pass all at once. It almost seems like he skips a frame, like he transcends time.

Joe Posnanski ( I think) would later write a column about Collins’ pass. I unfortunately can’t find it.

This gave “The Pass” its due, its rightful justice. Only, it didn’t. Nothing could. Collins defied basketball logic with that play. He saw an opening few could have seen, burst through it and did something that can’t even be properly interpreted on film.

****
For a while, Collins struggled with his role as the man. And at the beginning of last season, he had to be the man. He couldn’t quite trust anyone else.

Cole Aldrich was still unproven. He had outplayed Tyler Hansbrough months before, of course, but this wasn’t the Aldrich Kansas could lean on just yet.

Tyshawn Taylor and the Morris twins were enigmatic at best. Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed hadn’t become the ultimate glue guys and so on.

So against Syracuse, he tried a little too hard. Jonny Flynn made him. Flynn plays basketball with what the players like to call swagger.

Nobody outswaggers Collins, and he wanted to prove it. He did in the first half, scoring 15 points to Flynn’s eight. Then Flynn started scoring and talking and running with a little more energy. He scored 17 points the rest of the way.

Collins tried to keep pace, and made just one shot in the last nine minutes of regulation. At one point, he tried driving on Flynn, who stripped the ball, and Syracuse then went on a 13-2 run.

Kansas had a big lead. It lost in overtime. And it was easy, and probably rightful, to blame Collins.

A month later, he shot the ball too many times against Massachusetts. Kansas lost again.

Then came the Tennessee game. Bill Self said then that it was the kind of victory that could turn around a season. And something changed in Collins, too.

This was the first time since the Massachusetts debacle that Kansas played a tight game. Collins could have reverted to old form and tried to do too much. He didn’t.

In the last five possessions, the last few minutes, he got to the free throw line, and he passed the ball inside to Aldrich. The occasion called for that, and he delivered.

Of course, the occasions change. That’s why he shot and made all those three-pointers against Oklahoma. That’s why he came in at just the right time on Saturday against Kansas State. That’s why, though he could put 25 up if he wanted, sometimes he lets the Morris twins and Xavier Henry do most of the work in other games.

It goes back to his natural ability to respond to situations. He understands the subtleties of the given game and then delivers.

***
Go turn on ESPN. You may have to wait a few hours, or likely just a few minutes, but at some point on any given day, a talking head will gush about John Wall.

Everybody loves John Wall. Did you know he hit a shot to beat Miami of Ohio? Did you know he may or may not have feuded with his hot-headed coach over the weekend?

Wall averages gaudy numbers. He deserves much praise. But he gets it largely because of the numbers and general freshman hype.

Collins doesn’t always put them up. Against Missouri, he hardly scored. He really didn’t have to.

Last night, against Colorado, he hardly cared in the first half. He didn’t have to. Then in the second half, he erupted.
Collins just does what he needs to do, reflexively.

“The kid’s legacy to me is, there’s been a lot of good players here,” Bill Self said, “and he’s gonna win more games than any of them.”

Self said that to the Kansas City Star the other day, and I think you can read even further into the quote.

Collins isn’t just some guy who ends his career with a bunch of victories because he played on good teams.

Of all the recent Kansas players and all the college basketball players in general, no one does more to get his team those wins. There’s no other player who wins games like Collins.

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