“Rush Leaning Towards Return – For Now”.
I sat down to read Saturday’s edition of the Lawrence Journal World and wondered if a headline like that was ill-timed the day before facing Oklahoma. The “talk” about a young kid like Brandon leaving school and turning pro has a tendency to creep into a player’s mind no matter how hard he tries to block it out. I immediately wondered how or if the headline would affect the Kansas City native’s performance on Sunday.
And Sunday didn’t start particularly well for Kansas freshman Brandon Rush. When KU’s leading scorer took off his warm up after starting lineups were announced, Brandon had a surprise – no uniform. It could’ve been a case of nerves but it ended up providing quite a laugh for his coaches, teammates, and the fans. Rush managed a sheepish grin while his teammates huddled around the embarrassed freshman.
What happened after that was no laughing matter. On the very first play of the game Brandon was poked in the eye. Rush scored just six points in the first half, took only four shots, and never seemed to get into the flow. It’s never a good sign when your top perimeter threat spends more time rubbing his eye than he does rubbing opponents off screens. The Kansas trainers attempted to use eye drops but Rush’s vision was blurred for most of the game and it affected him.
Rush started the second half by going 0-4 from the floor and some of those misses were of the wide open variety. So while Oklahoma built a huge lead, Brandon was visibly frustrated. He wanted so badly to help his teammates in such a pivotal game. After all this was a chance for Rush to step up – the exact type of situation Self has been begging him to become more assertive in. The brain was willing in this one, but Brandon’s jumper was lagging a bit behind.
His team was running out of possessions to get back in this game. His team needed him – NOW. When Brandon sat down on the bench after a substitution assistant coach Joe Dooley went over and knelt down in front of his emotional star to offer some instruction.
“I just told him he was short on everything and that his follow through was down here (as he stretched his arm out about shoulder height),” said Dooley after the game.
In basketball terms Brandon was “yanking the string”, and just needed to get back that smooth, high follow through we become accustomed to seeing. Sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to do. But when Rush re-entered the game he immediately hit his first three of the day and did something we haven’t seen too often this year – he let out a big roar of emotion then shook his head as if to say, “it’s about time Brandon”. That shot opened the floodgates for Brandon and Kansas.
You can talk about the terrific game played by Julian Wright, the spark C.J. Giles provided off the bench, the all-around game played by Sasha Kaun, or the guts Mario Chalmers showed not being afraid to take the shot that mattered most after a sub-par performance – all of those would be viable but I admire what I saw from Brandon Rush in this one. He fought hard and it wasn’t because he was worried about accumulating stats in front of the NBA scouts attendance. It was because he wanted Kansas to win this game badly and he had no interest in letting himself or his teammates down.
Brandon led the charge with energy on the offensive and defensive side of the ball down the stretch. While Rush hit two pivotal threes, he also answered the call on the defensive end of the floor. Self asked him if he had enough gas left to guard Terrell Everett down the stretch. Brandon embraced the challenge and kept the Sooner senior scoreless for the rest of the game including an impressive block on Everett with 1.6 left on the clock. The ball ended up in Rush’s hands, in what I thought would be, a perfect way to end this one.
After two heart-stopping seconds the comeback was finally complete I realized like Kansas, Brandon proved he can do what it takes to win a game even on a day where he might not have his best. Rush was a scorer, a leader, a defender --- he was one hell of a player in this one. Brandon proved what he’s learned and how much he’s matured this season. He’s reached double-digits in nine straight games, he’s the best freshman in the conference and now he’s making the leap from reluctant star to one of the league’s best.