Making His Mark On KU Basketball

It was the defining game of Cole Aldrich's life, and one he will always remember.

Just a freshman playing in his first Final Four last April, Cole Aldrich dominated the first half against North Carolina. He ruled the paint — crashing the glass, blocking and altering shots, and frustrating national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough.
    
At one point, Aldrich ripped an offensive rebound right out of the hands of Hansbrough (6-9, 250), considered perhaps the toughest and strongest player in college basketball.
    
The play was a telling statement. Cole David Aldrich had arrived on the national scene.
    
In the national semifinal featuring up to nine future NBA players, KU coach Bill Self “thought Cole was the best player in the game in the first half. He may have won the game for us as much as anybody because he bought us so many great minutes” with big men Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson on the bench with two fouls.
    
Aldrich came up huge in the first half with six points, six rebounds and three blocks in 13 minutes. He finished the contest with eight points, seven boards and four blocks.
    
The 6-11 center said he was wide-eyed coming into the game after watching countless Final Fours growing up in Bloomington, Minn. But he was poised and relentless playing on the biggest stage of his life.
    
“It was fun,” Aldrich said. “I just took the opportunity and came out and tried to hold my own. I played well and had a blast. It definitely gave me confidence. Just playing against the best guy in college basketball and playing well, it really made me think that maybe I do have a little skill.”
    
Now a sophomore, Aldrich’s coming-out party against the Tar Heels has raised the expectations for this budding star. One of only two returning players (along with junior point guard Sherron Collins) who played meaningful minutes last season, Aldrich will go from the fourth big man on the roster to the starting center for the defending national champions.

For Aldrich and KU, the new season starts on Tuesday as the Jayhawks open exhibition play against Washburn at 7 p.m. in Allen Fieldhouse.
    
After averaging 2.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 8.3 minutes per game last season, Aldrich is looking forward to his expanded role.
    
“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s basically night and day. Being behind three other guys (Jackson, Kaun and Darrell Arthur) last year, now I’m one of the main guys. It’s really exciting to go through the transition of progressing over the course of my freshman year to sophomore year and the different expectations that come with that.”
    
Self certainly has high hopes for his sophomore center.
    
“He’s a lot better,” Self said in August. “He’s taking much more of an active role. He’s looking to score (in practice) every time he touches it, which is good. Cole’s doing great.”
    
“There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be one of the better big men performers in our league,” Self added at media day in October. “He may not be a 15 points a game guy, but you should be able to pencil him in for double figure production and seven to eight rebounds every night. He’s got a great skill set, and he’s getting tougher all the time. The North Carolina game did wonders for his confidence in my opinion. He had a great off-season in large part because he was so confident throughout it.”
    
Aldrich said he had a “really productive summer.” He served as a counselor at the Adidas Nations camp in Dallas, where he scrimmaged with some of the best college players in the country. When he wasn’t in summer school in Lawrence playing pickup ball with his teammates, he went home to Bloomington and worked out with one of his friends.
    
Aldrich gave a glimpse of what’s to come during KU’s three exhibition games in Ottawa, Ontario on Aug. 30-31. He had 10 points, 18 rebounds, six blocks and four steals against McGill, and finished the tour averaging 12 points, 11 rebounds and a team-high 3.0 blocks per game. He also shot a sizzling 60 percent from the field and 92.3 percent (12-13 FT) from the charity stripe.
    
He’s committed to continuing to work hard and producing this season. After all, that’s the work ethic his parents, Kathleen and Walt, have instilled in him his entire life.
    
“That’s really all my dad has taught me was just to go out and put in your hard work and it will definitely pay off,” Aldrich said.
    
The Minnesota native believes he’s come a long way since the beginning of his freshman year. He was a sponge throughout the season, learning the nuances of the college game and the importance of footwork, angles, and post defense.
    
He progressed each day learning from assistant coach Danny Manning and battling Kaun, Arthur and Jackson in practice. Aldrich led KU with nine rebounds in 12 minutes against Missouri in early February, and recorded his first career double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds in 17 minutes against Texas Tech on Senior Night a month later.
    
Aldrich finished third on the team in blocks with 34.
    
“When I got out on the court at the (start) of the season, I was kind of lost, how fast everything was,” Aldrich said. “Finally, toward the end of the season, things started to slow down. I really got to know a lot of things. Just with the help of Darnell and the other two big guys, I really learned a lot.”
    
He said he also learned invaluable leadership skills from the five seniors. With a year’s experience and KU losing five players who were selected in the NBA Draft, Aldrich knows it’s now time to become a leader himself and show the way to the seven newcomers, just as he led as a star player at Jefferson High School.  
    
“In high school, being viewed as one of the better guys on the team, that’s one of your expectations to lead by example and lead by saying stuff,” Aldrich said.
    
Aldrich’s mission is to lead KU to another national title. He said he still gets goosebumps every time he watches highlights of Mario Chalmers’ game-tying three-pointer in the NCAA final against Memphis.
    
Of course, The Shot sent KU into overtime as the Jayhawks won their first national title in 20 years.
    
“We finally know how to win the national championship, and we know it’s not easy at all,” Aldrich said. “We’re just hoping to teach these young guys that is the way we play Kansas basketball. We really stress getting to the title game and playing in the biggest games we can play. It’s going to be a little different without having some of our seniors and those guys from last year, but it’s a whole new start and we’re (ready to go).”
    
It’s hard not to get excited listening to Aldrich talk. He’s a happy-go-lucky 20-year-old who has endeared himself to his coaches, KU fans, his teammates and even reporters with his good cheer and affable nature. Even though Aldrich towers above everybody on campus, the student body can identify with him as one of their own. Aldrich is down to earth and always has a friendly word to say.
    
He’s just one of the guys eating at his favorite restaurant Backyard Burger, bowling at the Kansas Union, or playing video games.
    
Sophomore guard Conner Teahan loves being around the big man, who’s been nicknamed “Fly Swatter” by his teammates.
    
“Cole is just Cole all the time,” Teahan said. “He never changes. He’s the same way. He’s always the kind of lanky guy walking around, having a good time and telling jokes. What he says to his best friend, he’ll say to anybody. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter if he just met you or not. He’s going to be himself and he’s not going to be anybody else. That’s what is so great about him.”
    
The NBA scouts think quite fondly of Aldrich as well. They’ll be watching his every move this season and charting his improvement. One scout said Aldrich likely needs at least two more years in college, and then should have a long NBA career. The scout added that Aldrich has already made great strides since he saw the freshman during his early days at practice last season.
    
“He was a really long way off, but he progressed and got a little better every time I saw him,” the scout said. “I think in the Final Four, that was probably the best he was capable of playing. It’s good to see where he’s reached that level of potential. I still think he’s got some parts of his game that he needs to improve.
    
“There’s some guys in the (NBA) that don’t score and aren’t that skilled but are in the rotation on good teams. I think that’s what he’s going to be. If he can develop some more offensive skills, just where he can at least be a threat to score ... I think he’s an NBA defender and NBA hustler guy. There’s guys in our league doing what he does.”
    
The scout believes this should be a telling year for Aldrich.
    
“He wasn’t asked to do a whole lot of scoring last year,” the scout said. “This year, he’s going to have to do a little more. We’ll see if he’s ready for that step. He has the body, he’s got the motor, which I love most about him. He’s a very hard working, unselfish kid, and those kids tend to find a niche in our league.”
    
“He plays hard every minute he’s on the floor,” the scout added. “He’s going to play physical, he’s going to play tough, he’s going to play strong. There’s not many guys in our league who want to do that. They want the ball, where he can play without the ball and be effective and impact the game.”
    
This scout said Aldrich reminds him of a “smaller Joel Przybilla,” the 7-1  blue collar center for the Portland Trail Blazers. Przybilla is a proven shot blocker and a big energy guy.
    
“He’s (also) a little like David Lee (6-9 forward with the New York Knicks), not as skilled or athletic,” the scout said. “Jeff Foster (Indiana Pacers 6-11 center), those kind of guys, the bangers, physical, screen, rebound, defend, hustle. He’s one of those guys where a coach is going to watch him in a workout and be like, ‘What does he do?’ Then you put him on the floor in a game and it’s pretty hard to take him off the floor.”
    
 Teahan believes Aldrich will surprise people with his offense this season.
    
“Cole is a great player,” Teahan said. “We saw that at the end of the year last year. He’s a tough matchup, just because he’s so long. He’s got a good shot, too. People haven’t seen that from him, but he can shoot the ball. He’s got a pretty good 17-to-18-foot jump shot. It might not be the prettiest thing, but it goes in every time. I would never give him any space. I think he’ll fit into (the main) role pretty well, and obviously him and Sherron will have to carry a pretty big load this year.”
    
Just like Aldrich did against North Carolina last April in the Final Four. This NBA scout agrees with Self that Aldrich “was a major, major reason why (KU) won that game. Just his energy. He didn’t back down from Hansbrough, which I think sent a message to the rest of the team. He got them extra possessions, extra boards.”
    
And after the game, Aldrich got a special message from Tar Heels’ coach Roy Williams, the former Jayhawk head man for 15 years. Aldrich actually chose Kansas over UNC and Minnesota.
    
“He just said ‘great job, go win it for us,’” Aldrich recalled. “Roy knows what Kansas tradition is. He really knows what the Kansas fans like.”
    
Aldrich just wants to build on his play against Hansbrough and the Tar Heels and come up big every game this year. He’s prepared to meet the challenge and show Jayhawk fans his improved skills.

His first chance is Tuesday night against Washburn.
    
“There’s obviously going to be a little pressure because we play at such a great place with great tradition and great fans, and everybody wants to see you do well,” Aldrich said. “That’s what is so (great) about Kansas is because they want the best and want to see the best. You got to go out and have fun and just play your own game.”
    
Self thinks Jayhawk fans will see Aldrich’s ‘A’ game this year. With his strong defense, rebounding and shot blocking abilities, Self believes Aldrich will make an indelible mark on Kansas basketball.
    
“I don’t know if there’s going to be a better big guy to play at Kansas in many, many years,” Self said. 

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