A Little Relieved

Mario Little's brief KU career seemed like it might be over on Dec. 16 when he was arrested on misdemeanor charges of battery, criminal damage and criminal trespassing.

KU coach Bill Self suspended him indefinitely and there was speculation Mario Little might not ever suit up again as a Jayhawk.

But after missing six games, Self reinstated the 6-6 senior forward, who received a diversion agreement for two battery charges.

"I believe in Mario," Self said. "He has been a pleasure to coach and I am certainly proud of the fact he only has three hours left to graduate. I'm more concerned about what's best for our program rather than an individual, but in this case I believe he deserves a second opportunity to finish his career in uniform. I have consulted with many people about this, and after a lot of deliberation feel confident this is the best thing to do."

A month after his reinstatement, and nearly two months since his career and life hit its nadir, Little wowed the Allen Fieldhouse crowd Monday night in KU's victory over Missouri with a career-high 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting and 3-of-3 from beyond the arc in just 16 minutes.

It was his second biggest moment as a Jayhawk behind swishing the game-winning free throw with less than a second left as KU beat UCLA, 77-76, in the Phog on Dec. 2.

Little showed fans why he was the No. 1 ranked juco player in the county his sophomore season at Chipola (Fla.) Community College. He did what he does best — score. The Chicago native scored 12 of his points in the first half, helping KU to a 46-42 halftime lead.

Little made some shots that players don't take, including a pivotal three-pointer with the shot clock expiring with over 12 minutes remaining in the game, giving KU its biggest lead yet at 72-60.

Heck, Little isn't shy about pulling the trigger. He's never seen a shot he doesn't like.

"Mario is going to give himself a chance to score because he is going to clip it off as soon as he touches it usually," Self said. "He was feeling it and of course he bailed us out."
Little said he didn't feel extra pressure with freshman guard Josh Selby out with a stress reaction in his foot.

"No, I just try to play my game and just bring something to the table every night," Little said. "They were just falling for me so I just kept pulling."

Little, who is averaging 6.4 points in 15.1 minutes per game while shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from beyond the arc, may never score 17 points in a game the rest of the season. He may never live up to the hype coming out of junior college since he plays limited minutes. He will likely never get his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But he will still be a key factor off the bench the remainder of the year with his instant offense and a guy who can take the opponents' big man out on the perimeter (and away from rebounding position) while also playing small forward at times.

After redshirting last season, Little knows this is his last change to prove himself in college and prove himself as a KU basketball ambassador after his arrest.

If you watched KU's second-round loss to Northern Iowa in the NCAA tournament last March, you surely noticed how the TV cameras caught Little with his head buried into the court by the bench and crying uncontrollably moments after the final buzzer.

After pushing his teammates in practice all season, it pained him see KU's dream season end after the seconds ticked off the clock as the Panthers' players jumped in the air and celebrated like they had just won the national championship.

Little, after being at KU for two years, finally realized what Self and Kansas basketball was all about.

"I was just down. It was hard to swallow," Little recalled at Media Day last October. "I really bought into the system, just being a student of the game and learning and all of that. That's why I probably took it so hard because I fell in love."

Self has seen Little buy into the system, he's seen the love, he's seen Little's remorse for his poor judgment on Dec. 16, and he's seen Little take responsibility and attend weekly counseling sessions as part of the diversion agreement.

So he reinstated the senior and rewarded him for his work ethic by giving him minutes in the rotation. Perhaps above all, he's seen Little mature.

"He seems to have a little bit different focus since that (arrest) occurred and he's very appreciative of being out there," Self said. "I think he's done a nice job so far. When you look at it through his eyes, this is his opportunity to maybe do something that will warrant him having a career overseas or something like that. He's not getting a lot of minutes, but his attitude's been great. That's the thing I think where he's matured the most."

Self believes Little could have a long career overseas.
"Depending on which league, absolutely," Self said. "He's undersized, but Mario puts up numbers. Shots per minute, he would lead our team hands down. Passes per minute, he would be last place on our team. He's a hungry guy, he's a natural scorer. That's what he does. A lot of times when he's in the situations I put him in, he doesn't show what he could really do because that's probably not what we want as far as time, score, and momentum. But he's a natural scorer. I think he could play overseas for a long time."

Little is putting the past behind him and moving on while poised for a bright future. He's looking for redemption and taking advantage of his second chance.

"I have appreciated all the support people have shown me, especially my teammates," Little said after he was reinstated. "I accept responsibility for what took place that evening and have learned from it and feel awful about it. I'm appreciative of the opportunity to come back. The last four weeks have given me time to reflect and reevaluate a lot of things with myself. I certainly anticipate not only handling situations better but also feel I have become a much better person because of this."

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