Bradley 77, KU 73.
For the Bradley fans and players at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich., the win was one of the greatest feelings they had ever experienced. But it was heartbreak to the KU players and crimson and blue faithful. Kansas fans wept openly as they watched the Bradley players hug each other at midcourt and celebrate. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks walked somberly to their locker room.
At 12:05 a.m. on March 18, KU’s dream season had turned into a nightmare. Eighteen minutes later, the Kansas locker room doors finally opened. Dressed in blue shorts and a sliver tank top, senior guard Jeff Hawkins stood stoically by a wall at the front of the locker room. His head bowed, Hawkins spoke to reporters softly, yet sent a strong message to the returning Jayhawk players sitting just a few feet away.
“They got to take it and always keep it in the back of their head and remember this when they’re shooting jumpers,” Hawkins said. “Remember this loss and take it as motivation and come back next year harder and stronger.”
Indeed, the underclassmen heeded Hawkins’ plea, worked diligently on their games over the summer, and are now hungrier than ever to open exhibition play against Washburn on Thursday night and make this a dream season to remember.
And oh, the 2006-07 Jayhawks could be truly amazing with arguably as much potential talent that has ever graced the Allen Fieldhouse hardwood.
KU is the pick of the Big 12 coaches to win the league and ranked No. 3 in the nation in the ESPN/USA Today preseason coaches poll. Super sophomores Rush and Julian Wright have also been honored by league coaches as conference preseason co-Players of the Year. Expectations are sky high with Kansas returning nine lettermen and top six scorers from a team last year that won 15 of its last 17 games. Throw in the enormous upside of guys like Rush, Wright, fellow sophomore Mario Chalmers, and freshman McDonald’s All-Americans Darrell Arthur and Sherron Collins, and it’s easy to see why KU is the talk of the country.
Just look at the cover of college basketball’s preseason magazines.
Lindy’s: “Jayhawks: Time is now.” Athlon Sports: “Rock, Chalk...Title Talk.” And then there is The Sporting News: “Can anyone stop Kansas?”
KU coach Bill Self certainly hopes nobody can. However, he knows his team has some battles ahead as it begins the exhibition season against Washburn.. With the indefinite suspension of C.J. Giles and a knee injury to Sasha Kaun on Sunday (out three-to-six weeks with a partially torn patella tendon), KU has suddenly gone from one of the deepest teams in the country to very thin up front.
"My excitement is a little tempered,” Self said about the Washburn game. “I know we have a long ways to go before we're ready to play, even on Thursday night. I am excited about the season and what's going on, but certainly Sasha's situation was a blow to us.”
Self is suddenly forced to go to a small lineup. Without twin towers Giles and Kaun, he said he plans to play freshman Darrell Arthur and junior forward Darnell Jackson at the five spot while Wright will log more time at power forward. Sophomore Matt Kleinmann (6-10) suddenly jumps into the mix up front off the bench, and 6-4 junior Rodrick Stewart may see some time at power forward.
The KU coach is quite concerned how this small lineup will defend people in the paint.
“We don't guard very well inside,” Self said. “Sasha was our best low-post defender, so that is an issue."
Self is hoping guys like Jackson and Arthur step up their games and become a presence. Jackson averaged 6.7 points and 4.9 rebounds in 15. 2 minutes per game last season.
“I think he's come a long ways offensively,” Self said. “Defensively, I cannot say that. He is a good shooter. Darnell can do a lot of good things. My biggest concern is rebounding the ball and having a low-post presence on the defensive end, impacting the game by not giving up easy shots and contesting and altering shots. That is an area he has to get a lot better in."
KU fans will find out how much Jackson and the returning players have improved this Thursday night. The Jayhawk nation will also get their first game look at the great freshman class of Collins, Arthur, and Brady Morningstar from Free State High School in Lawrence. Self has been impressed thus far with several of his players in practice, including junior guard Russell Robinson, Chalmers, and Rush.
“Of our guys that returned and played a lot, those are the (ones) that stick out in my mind,” Self said. “From a newcomer standpoint, Darrell Arthur has had as good a camp as anybody. But I think Jeremy Case has gotten a lot better. Brady Morningstar has improved the last few days. Rodrick Stewart has played pretty well. Still, early in the season when we're putting in new things, it's hard for any one guy to look good. I don't think we've put our guys in a position for one to just stand out. I think we have guys who play really well with the ball, but not so many that play well without the ball."
Self is looking for maximum effort from his team when they take the court on Thursday. He knows Washburn will be ready and psyched to play in Allen Fieldhouse.
"Last year, they struggled but they return the majority of their team,” Self said. “It should be a fun game. Two years ago, it was a nine-point game. It was four or five points late in the game and they had a shot, so I think that game helped us in a lot of ways."
“I think the exhibition games (KU plays Emporia State on Nov. 7) are good for our entire team and our program,” Self added. “This is a good opportunity for us to do some good things as a team, regardless of what the score says or who you're playing against."
For Self and Kansas, the magical journey to the Final Four in Atlanta begins now. Chalmers, who took Hawkins’ message last March to heart and comes into his sophomore year a better defender and stronger player, believes KU is primed for the challenge ahead.
"I think (we are the team to beat), but we just have to stay levelheaded and don't get too ahead of ourselves and think we can't be beat,” he said. “The biggest key for us: don't take anybody lightly."
And if they accomplish that goal, the Jayhawks could certainly go a long way come March.
“We can be a pretty special group,” Self said.