Kansas basketball fans had been waiting seven and a half months for this moment ever since Bradley shocked and eliminated the Jayhawks in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March.
The crimson and blue faithful dreamed about this night. They ached for this evening to come. And they told everyone they knew that this 2006-07 basketball team could be, as hall of famer and former KU coach Larry Brown would say, pretty “special.”
Possibly a Jayhawk team for the ages.
So was it any wonder 16,000-plus fans flocked to Allen Fieldhouse last Thursday night for KU’s exhibition opener against Washburn. The crowd came to see their beloved Jayhawks put on a show at 7 p.m. And two hours later when walk-on guard Brennan Bechard climaxed the Jayhawk scoring with a three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining, Kansas fans had many more reasons to smile and relish the season to come.
It was showtime Thursday night in KU’s 99-69 victory over the Ichabods.
And here is what some of the Jayhawk faithful witnessed: They saw 6-8 sophomore Julian Wright sprint upcourt, catch a sweet pass from freshman guard Sherron Collins, and fly through the lane for a one-handed dunk. They watched 6-9 freshman sensation Darrell Arthur pickpocket every Washburn player in sight (six steals) and wow everyone with his athletic brilliance. And they saw Collins catch a crisp pass, take one step, then flip an underhanded dish with his left hand back to a streaking Mario Chalmers for a highlight jam.
In all, the crowd watched KU record 23 assists, shoot 47.6 percent from three-point land, block seven shots, force 25 turnovers, and have five people score in double figures. But despite the highlight plays and impressive stats, coach Bill Self and his team know there is great room for improvement.
“Offensively, they were all pretty good,” Self said. “Defensively, I’ve said that all along, guarding the post, rebounding the ball (KU out-rebounded Washburn by just one despite the Ichabods shooting 37. 1 percent) and defensive transition would probably be our three biggest weaknesses right now. ...Our guys were exposed in some ways where maybe the other team didn’t score, too. We got a lot of things to work on before we play Northern Arizona (regular season opener on Nov. 11). But I’m not sure that’s all bad, either.”
Arthur, for one, is looking forward to the challenge ahead. KU plays its final exhibition game Tuesday night against Emporia State before battling the Lumberjacks (defending Big Sky champions) on Saturday.
“We are going to try and work on our defensive assignments more and conditioning,” Arthur said after the Washburn win. “People got winded out there a little bit. More people are going to play more minutes since Sasha (Kaun) and C. J. (Giles) are out. We have to get in better shape. We have to work on not fouling as much. Just go make our offense smooth and everybody’s got to share the ball."
Kansas actually shared the ball quite well against Washburn with 23 assists on 38 field goals. Collins and sophomore forward Brandon Rush led the way with five assists each.
"I hope this team stays unselfish,” Self said.
Self saw other positive signs. Darnell Jackson was aggressive inside with a career game (18 points and 10 rebounds), Chalmers (12 points and three steals) and Rush (10 points and six rebounds) “played very well,” and 6-4 junior guard Rodrick Stewart chipped in five points and two rebounds in 12 minutes.
The KU coach was also pleased with his three freshmen, who all had their shining moments. Arthur (team-high 21 points) was especially dominant with a lethal display of jump hooks and outside shooting, while the 5-11 Collins added eight points and 6-3 guard Brady Morningstar had three points and two rebounds in 12 minutes.
Washburn coach Bob Chipman was quite impressed with KU's freshmen and the entire Jayhawk squad.
“They are a fabulous group, and they are so fun to watch,” Chipman said. “If I wasn't coaching Washburn, I would buy season tickets. They all go get shots, they all can run, they all can shoot. They play hard, they run their offense, they give each other great shots and they are so athletic in every position. Surely somebody can back off and put in a weak defensive player, but not them. ... (For coach Self) to get those guys that are so talented to do all the dirty work, it is a nice group."
This group will only get better when the 6-10 Giles returns to action next semester. Self recently reinstated him back to the team after his suspension, although Giles is only allowed to practice and cannot play in games until Dec. 19 against Winston-Salem State.
However, Self and company are not looking that far ahead. With KU’s first exhibition game now history, the Jayhawks are only concerned this week about Tuesday night’s game with Emporia State and the regular season opener against Northern Arizona on Saturday. ESU (18-13 last season) opened its exhibition season with an 87-62 loss at Wichita State on Nov 1. The Hornets, who return just one starter, were led by senior guard Donta Watson with 19 points and six assists. Kansas leads the series 15-3 with the Hornets’ last win coming in 1947.
Northern Arizona will obviously be a much bigger test for KU. The Lumberjacks are coming off one of the most exciting seasons in school history, when they went 21-11 and appeared in the NIT. They return four starters and nine lettermen, including the dynamic senior trio of Ruben Boykin, Jr. (All-Big Sky first-team selection in 2005-06), Stephen Sir, and Tyrone Bazy. Boykin (6-7 forward) averaged 13.3 points and a league-high 7. 2 rebounds last season, while Sir (6-6 guard) led the country in three-point field goal percentage (48. 9 percent). Sophomore guard Josh Wilson (6-2) is the fourth starter, and ranked 11th in the nation with 6.2 assists per game.
Head coach Mike Adras can’t wait to start the year against Kansas.
“When you are the defending league champions and you have four starters back off that team, you feel pretty good in the off-season about getting ready for the upcoming season,” Adras said. But the question will be: ‘How is your team going to develop during the season?’ Because you don’t win championships on paper.”
The championship run for both Northern Arizona and Kansas starts this Saturday. The Jayhawks hope to build on the Washburn game and Tuesday night’s matchup with Emporia State, and open the regular season with a night to remember. Sure, there will be plenty of dunks and amazing plays, but can KU improve in such areas as defense and rebounding?
Although Kansas has plenty of kinks to work out, effort and heart are certainly not an issue.
“Everybody is going to give it their all,” Arthur said. “Everybody is going to play 100 percent.”