Jayhawks Begin Conference Stretch Saturday

Perfect in the nonconference portion of the schedule, can Bill Self's Jayhawks continue their run during conference play? Kansas heads to Lincoln to take on Nebraska on Saturday, David Garfield with a preview, inside.

Kansas ran the table in nonconference play (15-0) and is off to its fifth-best start in school history. The Jayhawks are one of the few unbeaten teams left in college basketball and have been destroying their opponents with a nation-leading +25.4 scoring margin. KU also entered the week third nationally in steals per game (11.4), and second in field-goal percentage (52.4) and assists per game (20.1)

Can they be beaten?

The Jayhawks will certainly be tested in their Big 12 conference opener Saturday night at Nebraska (8 p.m. CST) in the sold-out Bob Devaney Center. It's officially the "second season" for Kansas basketball.

"I always thought the first season is your nonconference and it's the least significant," said KU head coach Bill Self. "Your second season is your conference and it is very significant, and the most important season is your conference tournament and your postseason. We look at it that way. The great thing about starting conference play is that everybody has their batteries charged. The intensity is going to be up several notches. Everybody is 0-0 and has hopes and aspirations."

The Jayhawks will have junior guard Mario Chalmers back in the lineup, who sat out Tuesday's game against Loyola (Md.) with a groin injury. Self said at his Thursday press conference that he believes Chalmers "will be real close, if not 100 percent, on Saturday." Kansas certainly needs Chalmers against a Nebraska team which is 11-2 and riding a six-game winning streak. NU also boasts a 12-game home-winning streak — the nation's 14th longest active streak. The Cornhuskers are a vastly improved team from last year, where they lost to Kansas twice by a combined 66 points (76-56 in Lincoln and 92-46 in Lawrence).

Nebraska has eight scholarship newcomers, including four who have received significant minutes. The Cornhuskers are playing gritty defense and rank among the nation's best in several defensive categories, including scoring defense (No. 2 at 53.5 ppg) and field-goal percentage defense (No. 2 at 35.1).

Nebraska is led by Alex Maric, the Big 12's active career rebounding leader. Maric ranks among the top six in the conference in scoring (16.2 ppg), rebounding (8.4 rpg), and field-goal percentage (61.2). Junior college transfer guard Ade Dagunduro is second on the team in scoring (11.4 ppg) and gives NU an athletic defensive presence. Six-foot-four guard Ryan Anderson is a long-range bomber who averages 9.5 points and leads NU with 19 three-pointers.

And then there's rising freshman point guard Cookie Miller. The court leader ranks fifth in the Big 12 in assists (4.46 apg) and seventh in steals (2.08 spg).

Self knows KU won't have it easy in Lincoln.

"They are definitely more athletic (than previous teams)," Self said. "They are still playing relatively small because they are playing Ryan Anderson at the four. He is a real good shooter, their best three-point shooter. Ade Dagunduro is a really good player. He has a great in-between game and can shoot the three. He is a powerful athlete and a really good wing. And they have a really good point guard in Cookie Miller. They definitely upgraded their talent level from last year."

Of course, Self is more concerned about his team's play heading into the Big 12 season. Self wants more consistency in all aspects of the game, although he said he's been pleased with how KU's big men have consistently run in transition and "stole some easy baskets."

Self definitely wants junior guard Brandon Rush to be more consistent and aggressive. He wasn't pleased with Rush after KU's 90-60 victory over Loyola (Md.) on Tuesday night. Rush scored nine points while shooting just seven times (three-of-seven).

"I did tell Brandon to be more aggressive (at halftime), but it's pretty sad three years into it that a coach has to tell a really good player to be aggressive playing the game of basketball," Self said after the game. "A coach should never have to tell his leading scorer the last two years to be aggressive, but we have to do that way too often. And that's frustrating to me because we're not going to be a real good team unless he plays to his talent level offensively, and certainly he can do a better job with that. He'd be the first to tell you that, but for whatever reason, he shies away from shooting the ball."

Self elaborated on his comments about Rush during Thursday's press conference.

"I love Brandon, but Brandon needs to be aggressive for us to be the team that we can be," Self said. "He goes through phases where he doesn't do that and he knows that. Being aggressive doesn't necessarily have to do with taking `X' number of shots or anything like that. You just need to put yourself in the game on more possessions and I think he will do that. I think it may be a mental thing with his knee. Maybe he hasn't convinced himself that ‘Hey, I am the old Brandon.' I think he's ready to be the old Brandon. We need him to be more aggressive."

Self wants Rush to "be a playmaker. If he is aggressive offensively, people are going to guard him more which opens up passing lanes into the post. If he comes off ball screens ready to score and forces help, that leaves somebody open. There are a lot of things that guys can do to put themselves in the game without shooting the basketball. His points per game have nothing to do with it. It's putting himself in the game to be in a position to help his team more."

Rush and Kansas get their next shot to improve themselves Saturday night against a hot Nebraska team which could be looking for revenge after the Jayhawks blew them out twice last year. Self surely knows "there is so much balance" in the Big 12 and that any team can win on any given night.

He just hopes that team is Kansas in the Big 12 opener.

"I think it is an exciting time," Self said. "Any road win would be a great win in this league."

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