Why Can't Mario Be Super?

It was a good Christmas around my house, which means my wife and kids were happy. So, with everyone at my house getting the things they absolutely had to have, I started wondering if those near and dear to me got that one gift they really, really coveted. That included KU basketball coach Bill Self.

Frankly, I don’t know if he asked the Missus for a plush new terrycloth robe or Homer Simpson slippers or a new hybrid iron for the golf bag, but I do know that what would help make for a really merry Christmas and perhaps an early April trip to Atlanta was a leader for his basketball team, someone who wants the ball when the collars get tight.

For two years now, he’s been asking Santa to sprinkle magic leadership dust on Russell Robinson.  And sure, Robinson wreaks havoc with his quick hands and ability to grab steals. He’s a great on-ball defender. I think most of us would admit that he is, as his coach has called him, “the glue” that holds the team together. It’s true: this team doesn’t play as well for long stretches when Russell Robinson isn’t on the floor. Despite all that, he hasn’t turned into the leader the team needs.

Most fans think it needs to be Brandon Rush. He’s older, he’s likely the best basketball player on the team and his peers just naturally look to him. And while I normally wouldn’t complain about a guy scoring about 15 a game, until he learns to consistently put two offensive halves together, it’s going to be tough to be the leader.

More and more, though, I’ve wondered, “Why not Mario Chalmers?” Last Saturday’s decisive win against a good Boston College team made me wonder just that much more.

The 6-4 sophomore guard poured in 22 points in front of a boatload of NBA scouts, including NBA legend Vinny Del Negro (make sure your sarcasm meters are properly calibrated, folks). He shot very well, was 3-of-6 from behind the arc, dealt four assists against two turnovers, picked five steals and even had a block.

“I thought Mario played great,” KU head coach Bill Self said after the Boston College game. “He was more aggressive; he got the ball where it needed to go. This was the best game he’s played this season to date.  It wasn’t that he did anything spectacular; he just put himself in a position to make plays, and he’s a good playmaker.”

Teammate Julian Wright said that Chalmers is simply responding to what Self and the KU staff have been telling the squad for weeks now. “Coach is telling us to step up and make shots and have some confidence, and Mario’s taking on that mentality,” Wright said.

What made me sit up and take notice of Chalmers, though, was a second half stretch in which Boston College had whittled a 26-point Jayhawk lead down to the neighborhood of 15 with more than enough time to mount a comeback. Was this another case of “Here we go again?”

Mario Chalmers answered that question forcefully, and the answer was “no.” In the last seven minutes, Chalmers kept Boston College at arm’s length, making three lay-ups and a midrange jumper when it seemed no other Jayhawk could make a shot.

When asked if it was a happy coincidence that he had the ball in his hands when things could have gotten tight or if it was an effort on his part, Chalmers said it was a little bit of both.

“The zone kind of sagged to the other side and left open spots, so you’ve just got to pick your spot in the zone and take the shot when you have it,” he said.

I’ve noticed, though, that Chalmers has been picking his spots more and more as the season has progressed. His year started slow with an injury and with the coaching staff fine-tuning to his shot.

Now, he looks much more aggressive with his jump shot (“I’m more comfortable with the adjustments now”), he’s slashing into the lane and he’s racking up steals and assists at a good clip.

Timing is everything, and it looks like Chalmers is starting to come on strong just in time for the Big XII conference race to start.

So while Robinson and Rush have been put – or maybe pushed – into the leadership spotlight, maybe Mario Chalmers is the guy who will quietly and more consistently put this team on his shoulders when they need it.

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