Kansas brings rebuilt team to Big Dance
Just two years after hanging a national championship banner and watching six of his top eight players depart, Kansas coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks have reloaded and have a chance to win another title. But it took some serious luck.
"It’s crazy when you think about it," Kansas senior point guard Sherron Collins said.
It began when the team’s top two players, Collins and Cole Aldrich, decided that they didn’t even want to test the NBA waters following a Sweet 16 appearance last season.
Everyone with a pulse at the very least goes through the process.
Even guys like Miami’s Dwayne Collins and Arkansas’ Michael Washington — who had little chance of being drafted at all — did it a year ago.
But not Kansas’s duo. Aldrich was a potential lottery pick and Collins, who grew up in inner-city Chicago, could have well gone in the first round and received a guaranteed NBA contract.
"We wanted to stay and do something special," Aldrich said.
So they opted to return to Kansas, Collins for his final go-ahead and Aldrich for his junior campaign.
But Kansas wasn’t necessarily the front-runner to cut down the nets when those guys made their decisions to remain in Lawrence. They needed help. And for that, the Jayhawks can thank Kentucky head man John Calipari, who ironically has become Kansas’ most daunting roadblock to another title.
Calipari, then at Memphis, won a fierce recruiting battle with Kansas to land the services of highly regarded shooting guard Xavier Henry.
However, Calipari bolted for Kentucky this past April and Henry opted to play at Kansas instead of following Calipari to Bluegrass Country.
"Everything turned out great in the end," Henry said. "I think everything happens for a reason."
The reason the Morris twins wound up at Kansas? Because they weren’t sold on the fact that Calipari would be at Memphis when they got there.
Marcus and Markieff Morris were at one time committed to play for Calipari and the Memphis Tigers.
However, they decided to re-open their recruitment and wound up playing for a coach they had never even heard of before.
"We didn’t feel comfortable at the time with Calipari and Memphis," Markieff Morris said. "We just had a feeling he was going to leave."
"My brother and I didn’t know who Coach Self was back then," he added. "We didn’t even know who Danny Manning was."
Now, starting forward Marcus Morris (12.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) has become one of the most underrated players in the country and Markieff (6.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is the top frontline reserve coming off the bench.
Starting guard Tyshawn Taylor (7.4 ppg, 3.4 apg) is another one who never should have been in Lawrence. The New Jersey native was signed, sealed and delivered to Marquette. Once again, Self benefited from a coaching change as Tom Crean — who ironically is good friends with Calipari — departed for Indiana and Taylor wound up heading to KU.
"We never would have gotten Tyshawn if Mario Chalmers had stayed," said Self, who had scholarships open up when Chalmers and teammates Darrell Arthur and Brandon Rush all decided to leave early for the NBA. "And if Calipari doesn’t leave Memphis, we don’t get Xavier."
"It was peculiar how it all came together," added Kansas assistant Joe Dooley.
Taylor basically splits time with Brady Morningstar, a local kid who few believed was talented enough to play at KU. Morningstar went the prep school route and eventually earned a scholarship offer to play at his dream school and has turned himself into an indispensible player due to his perimeter defense, long range shot and high basketball IQ.
"He’s a stud," Self said of Morningstar. "He’s proven a lot of people wrong."
"We’re really fortunate to have the team we have," Morningstar said. "Because a lot of things happened with each of us to get here."
Even Collins, who has won more games in a Kansas uniform than anyone in school history, admits that it was a long shot that he ended up as a Jayhawk coming out of Crane High in Chicago.
"I was sold on Illinois," Collins said, "until I made my recruiting visit to Kansas, and that just blew me away."
Now, this group of improbable Jayhawks will enter this week’s NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and the heavy favorite to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
"We’ve had some good fortune," Self said. “There’s no question about it."