Collins Keys Win Over Nebraska

There are many keys to a national championship run for Kansas. But here are four main components: energy, focus, sense of purpose, and a healthy Sherron Collins.

If Kansas can put all these elements together, the Jayhawks could be cutting down the championship nets in San Antonio on April 7.

And if they don’t, Kansas could be vulnerable to an upset. As head coach Bill Self said about KU’s tailspin in February (when the Jayhawks lost two of three games), the problem with Kansas’ poor play was “between the ears.”

That was definitely the case in the first half of KU’s matchup with Nebraska in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship on Friday night.

While KU beat NU, 64-54, the ‘Hawks didn’t exactly come out on fire. Whether it was due to KU’s first game in six days or the fact the Jayhawks had blown out Nebraska by a total of 56 points in their previous two matchups this season, Kansas was tight and played without focus and energy the first 20 minutes.

Sophomore Darrell Arthur got his dunk attempt blocked at the rim by  6-5 Nebraska guard Ade Dagunduro, Darnell Jackson got his shot swatted away by Aleks Maric down low, Jackson fouled Cookie Miller on a desperation three-pointer with two seconds left on the shot clock.

Kansas turned the ball over time and time again, and Nebraska responded; NU turned KU’s 12 turnovers into 15 points. The Cornhuskers outhustled and outplayed Kansas the first half (NU led by as many as nine points), leading 27-22 at halftime despite shooting just 40 percent from the field.

And then there was the Collins (missing) factor. Nebraska led 16-14 at the 8:29 mark when Collins picked up his second foul and went to the bench. The Cornhuskers promptly responded with an 11-4 run. Collins did not return the rest of the half.

With KU down by five at halftime, it was time for a wake-up call. You could tell KU would come out with a purpose in the second half by the way they walked through the tunnel back onto the court. Jackson and center Sasha Kaun were especially hyped. You could see their bounce, you could see their energy.

“C’mon, let’s go,” the two seniors said. Kaun even kicked his foot in the air, he knew this was tournament time.

And he didn’t want KU to be one and done in Kansas City.

Then the Jayhawks came out to play. Senior guard Russell Robinson hit a three ball. Junior forward Brandon Rush drove the right baseline for a nifty reverse layup. The Jayhawks flew in the air for offensive rebounds, they turned up the tempo, they played with a mission.

And Collins was back in the game to energize his teammates. After picking up his third foul with 14:30 remaining and then turning the ball over less then two minutes later, the Chicago native went to work. He fed Jackson for a thunder dunk and then made a traditional three-point play with a nice leaner in the paint and ensuing free throw.

Collins scored four more points in the last 1:19 to help seal the victory. With 13 points (four of six shooting) and great energy and leadership at the point, Collins keyed KU’s fifth straight victory. (Kaun was also a big boost with nine points and great defense on Nebraska star center Maric, who scored just 10 points and had six turnovers).

“You could make a case that Sherron has been as good a performer as we’ve had the last two to three weeks,” Self said. “When Sherron got his second foul (in the first half), I pulled him and we lost a little bit of energy. ...Sasha is a stabilizer and Sherron is the guy that is the energy boost.”

“Sherron has played as well as anybody in our program has played during their hot stretches,” Self added. “He is as important as anybody we have. ... He lives for ball and it’s been a very, very frustrating, humbling year for him because he’s done what he’s supposed to do to get himself back but he just hasn’t caught many breaks (with injuries). But if he’s healthy when it counts the most, then really what happened up until this point, we’re not going to remember that  much. It’s going to be from his point forward. It’s nice to have him at full strength.”

After suffering his latest injury (a bad knee bruise) over a month ago, Collins said he’s been “feeling pretty good since about the K-State game” on March 1. He scored 18 points against the Wildcats that night, and has averaged 14.3 points in his last four games.

“I think I am real close to 100 percent and I won’t look back,” he said. “I don’t think I will be bothered with any of my injuries.”

After Self finished his postgame press conference and some Jayhawks’ players were still  unwinding in the KU locker room, Collins sat by his locker while reporters peppered him with questions. Behind Collins on the wall was a Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship sign, which read: “Talent Wins Games, But Teamwork And Intelligence Wins Championships.”

Collins is certainly a team player and a very intelligent one. He talked about KU’s lack of focus and sense of purpose in the first half.

“We were lacking that a lot,” he said. “We didn’t come out ready to play. We didn’t match their intensity. They came out ready to play. They were the aggressor the first half. I don’t know if we overlooked them. ... We get everybody’s best shot every day, so we got to be ready to play and match the intensity. We got to come out and make the first shots.’

Collins was certainly hitting his shots tonight, and showed some bulldog intensity when he picked up a technical late in the game after he scored on a layup and was fouled hard by Dagunduro. Collins got in Dagunduro’s face with some heated words.

“I love the fire, he just has to do a better job of controlling it,” Self said.

Collins, for one, is just glad to be back on the court helping his team during an injury-plagued season.

“I can come in (off the bench) and be that spark and do whatever, pushing the ball or putting more pressure on the ball,” Collins said. “I was just trying to get the ball reversed and get the bigs touches and run the offense. I think we all did a good job of that once we got in at halftime. Coach let us know what we needed to do.”

Collins certainly knows what to do. He’s become a much-needed vocal leader both on and off the court.

He continues to answer reporters’ questions before interrupting himself.

“Grab me one, ‘B,’” Collins suddenly tells Rush, who picks up a postgame meal off the table and hands it over to the sophomore star.

This is Collins’ time, and each and every game, it’s becoming more his team. He wasn’t healthy during last year’s NCAA tournament, but he’s feeling fine now as KU prepares for the Big Dance.

“I think I’m peaking at the right time,” he said.

Both Rush and Kaun said that Collins was the key to KU’s fortunes.

“I think so,” Rush said. “He’s back healthy again and he’s moving like he used to. He’s getting his own shot and making plays for other people.”

“I think he’s proven that a long time ago,” Kaun said about Collins being the difference maker. “When he plays good, our team plays at a high level. When he doesn’t play as good, our team kind of lowers itself. He’s definitely a key.”

If Kansas can focus, play with energy and a sense of purpose, and have the healthy Collins at the top of his game, this KU team can win its first championship in 20 years. Collins certainly has his eyes on the prize. He didn’t hesitate to answer a reporter’s question about whether he’s given an ounce of thought to his plans next year.

“No, I haven’t,” Collins said softly. “I’m just thinking about trying to get a national championship right now. That the most important thing is thinking about this season. I’m not even thinking about next season at all.”

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