Monday, January 14, 2008

A KU Hoops Midseason Report Card

We have arrived at the first Big Monday of the college basketball season on ESPN. The second game features the Oklahoma Sooners coming to Allen Fieldhouse to take on the Kansas Jayhawks. After Saturday night's 21 point drubbing of Nebraska in Lincoln, I've got to say this is about as impressive of a KU team that I've seen since the 96-97 team of Paul Pierce, Raef Lafrentz, Jacque Vaughn, and company. Tonight is a big game for the Sooners, who are coming off a heartbreaking 84-82 loss to Kansas State Saturday. For KU, it's another chance to show the country they are the best team in the college game. Take a look at the roster and how they have contributed to the 16-0 start:

The Starters

F Darnell Jackson (12.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg) - The most improved player on the team and maybe the country. The man-crush they call "D-Block" has given KU another post threat and has opened up the game for his frontcourt mate Darrell Arthur. Has shown a money stroke from 15 feet, runs the floor better than any KU big man, and wants it more than anyone else. Did I mention he shoots 65% from the field? If I had to give an MVP award for this time, Jackson would get it. Grade: A

F Darrell Arthur (13.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg) - "Shady" leads the team in scoring, has definitely shown he is a better player than last year, but at times, you don't even remember he is on the floor. That said, he is a superior athletic talent and when he decides to be the man, he can score on anyone. He still tends to commit silly fouls at times and is more comfortable facing the basket, but thanks to an automatic fade away J, he is a lethal weapon in the post. The BC game, Shady was at his best, dunking and nailing jumpers on his way to 22. Grade: B+

G Brandon Rush (11.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) - I should give Brandon a break because he came back earlier than anyone thought after tearing his ACL in June. He still has superior perimeter skill, but his lack of aggressiveness is still a concern. It took Bill Self calling him out before the Nebraska game for the Brandon of old to return. The knee isn't able to give him the ability to be a lockdown defender the way he was last year, but he is still adequate. His ball handling skills are still extremely sub par and he relies way too much of the three point shot. Once he figures out to drive more, both Rush and the team will be much better off. Self needs the aggressive Rush to stay around the rest of the year if they plan on going to the Final Four. Grade: C+

G Mario Chalmers (12.1 ppg, 4.9 asp, 2,9 spg) - If Jackson isn't the MVP, than Chalmers is. Super Mario has been called by Self "the best off the ball defender I've ever coached." He is a steals machine on defense, is knocking down threes at a 46% clip, and still has the patented one handed floater in the lane. Maybe the best move of the Self era was moving Mario off the ball. Very rarely has he been a problem with turnovers this year, which is a huge bonus as I dubbed him "a turnover waiting to happen" in my preseason column. I love the way he is playing. Grade: A

G Russell Robinson (7.1 ppg, 4.6 asp, 2.5 spg) - The heart and soul of the Hawks. It seems like 20 years ago when he refused to enter a game at Baylor his Freshman year and was thinking transfer. He is Jacque Vaughn without the national fanfare. He just goes about his business, runs the team so smoothly, and rarely makes mistakes. On top of that, he is a lockdown defender on other teams point guards. His outside shot has improved as well. A quiet leader on the floor who is loved by his teammates. My respect level for Russ has jumped 1000% over the last two years. Grade: A-

The Bench

G Sherron Collins (9.6 ppg, 2.8 apg) - It's hard to gauge the season for Sherron who played so brilliantly in the first two games before breaking his foot and sitting for a month. Since he he's been back, the explosiveness isn't all the way back, and he is gutting it out. No doubt he is still a difference maker. He save KU during a potential double digit choke at Georgia Tech (with MTAC in the stands). With Chalmers sitting against Loyola, he looked like a natural next to Robinson, scoring 18 and knocking down three threes. But when he is off, he is off. When he is running the show, the team gets up and down the floor as fast as any team since Raymond Felton ran the point at UNC. Sherron getting back to full speed is essential for a National Title run. Grade: B

C Sasha Kaun (8.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg) - Bill Self deserves a ton of credit for the resurrection of the big Russian. Sasha began the season as a starter and looked completely lost. His confidence was completely shot. Self told Kaun to concentrate on what he does best, rebound and defend. Within two weeks, Kaun looked like a new man. He has embraced the role and its helped his offense as well. Best of all, his once 50% free throw shooting has become 71% since December 1st (27-38). He is the best interior post player KU has and Self knows it. That is why it was so important to get him back on track. Grade: B

G Rodrick Stewart (4.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.8 apg) - I've got a real soft spot for Rod. He got all of the minutes that were left behind with the injuries to Rush and Collins and he responded well. The Hawks never lose anything defensively when Stewart is on the floor. He never makes mistakes on offense and knows his limitations. He is the most athletic player on the team and sometimes is called upon to play power forward. He bided his time for two and a half years and is now a steady member of the rotation who can be counted on. Grade: B

C Cole Aldrich (3.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg) - Another guy I have a lot of respect for is Cole. He came in a McDonald's AA and at 99% of other schools he'd be playing 20 minutes a night, but he knows his role on this team. He isn't getting the run he'd like, but he is getting to practice every day against three quality big men. His defense is ready ready now, but his offense leaves something to be desired. The good news is he can hang if he is needed. Grade: B-

G Tyrel Reed (3.3 ppg, 1.2 apg) - The lesser known of KU's two Freshman, Reed got to see minutes because of the injuries at the guard position. He responded well offensively. He ran a smooth point and showed he can knock down the three. He looks like a mini-Hinrich out there. The problem is his defense. He was getting blown by regularly, but the good news is he isn't really needed this year. Will be good in time. Grade: C+

G Jeremy Case (2.1 ppg, 1.7 apg) - The fifth year season is what he is. Self tries to use him here and there because he allegedly is a great shooter. I've been waiting four plus years to see that. He did have a nice game against Loyola, scoring eight points in 12 minutes. Grade C+

G Conner Teahan (3.9 ppg, 64% from three) - Everyone loves Conner and wants to see more of him. The Missouri State player of the year has given the Allen Fieldhouse Faithful a ton of fun this season with his sick display of three point shooting. He is 11-17 for the season and nailed eight of his first nine. The downside is he couldn't guard me. I wonder if KU was down three and needed one shot, would Self ever put Teahan on the floor? Grade: A-

The Coach

Bill Self (16-0) - Self has been criticized by everyone for his in-game coaching since the day he set foot on campus. Some of it has been justified. This year he should have nothing but kudos from everyone. This team has been hungry and motivated the entire year. The improvement of Darnell Jackson and Mario Chalmers has been great, but what he has done with Sasha Kaun has been astounding. He turned him from a passive, bumbling waste of size with no confidence to a rebounding, shot blocking machine who is scoring in the post as well. He moved Jackson to the starting lineup and got Sasha back to basics. Its worked. Not to be overlooked is the contributions of assistant Danny Manning who both Arthur and Jackson have credited with making them better. Everyone knows Self will be judged only by what he does in March, but I say he has been fantastic in November, December, and January. Grade: A


This is the best and deepest KU team since 96-97. The difference is this team shoots better from deep. Losing Julian Wright has been addition by subtraction. While Wright was a superior athletic talent, for every one great pass he'd make, two bad ones would follow. He was also miscast at power forward. This team has defined roles; Two bigs and Three guards. They've battled injuries and played in hostile road environments, yet have conquered all 16 of their foes. They are hungry and focused. Offensively, have you seen better ball movement out of a KU team in your life? I know I haven't. They are so crisp with the ball and always seem to make the extra pass. On the defensive side, the guards swarm and when KU presses, its curtains for their opponent. There is still a lot of basketball to be played, but I love this teams chances to win it all.

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