KU Gets One

Bill Self's young Jayhawks earned a feather-in-the-cap win on Saturday vs. Tennessee and KU earned its first win against a ranked opponent this season.

Head coach Bill Self knew he’d have a young team this season but to the 6th year KU coach’s credit, he did not back down from the competition when compiling the 2008-2009 schedule. His young Jayhawks tackled a tough non-conference tilt, but until this point had not capitalized on opportunities to notch wins against Syracuse, or Arizona.

Narrow losses to UMass and Syracuse don’t get you far when pedigrees are being examined late in the season, and no one will remember that KU was leading in Tuscon before being inexplicably blitzed down the stretch.

Facts are facts and the KU resume to this point lacked a quality win against a non-conference opponent and included an unexpected slip up in its home-away-from-home in Kansas City vs. the Minutmen.  

So Saturday Bruce Pearl’s ranked Tennessee Volunteers visited Lawrence and provided yet another litmus test for this developing Kansas team.

Matching the intensity and aggressiveness of Pearl’s Tennessee Volunteers is no easy task for any team yet one as young as KU. The Vols are aggressive, long, athletic, and perhaps the hardest team to inbound against in the country. But all parties came ready for this one.

Kansas had a raucous fieldhouse crowd, Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich led by example, and Self even showed his fire during a first half that saw KU jump out to a sizeable lead.

The Jayhawks were ready from the opening tip and behind Collins career-high 26 points and nine assists answered every challenge the Vols threw at them. Collins took good shots, did not force the issue, got his teammates involved and set the tone early, taking on four Tennessee defenders and scoring a layup on a pretty spin move.

“I think Sherron was great today.  He played his butt off.  He was great,” said Aldrich.

“I think it was because I was able to control the game and get my teammates shots,” said Collins when asked if it was his best game in a KU uniform. “I didn’t try to go one-on-one, I just let the game come to me.”
 
On the interior it was all Aldrich all the time and Tennessee got a large dose of KU’s 6-11 sophomore. Aldrich played 37 meaningful for minutes for Self and notched 22 points, posted six blocks, and ten rebounds. Aldrich helped the Hawks answer the call on the boards, which was likely a concern coming in. Kansas ended up outrebounding Tennessee 44-38 and never let the Vols get momentum by putting away missed shots.

“We had good games by our 20-year old Sherron Collins and our 19-year old Cole Aldrich. The both played great,” Self said. “When we play high-caliber competition, I know its pressure on them to perform. But our complimentary players played pretty well too.”

“Today was what we needed to do. Cole did a good job of staying out of foul trouble early and so did I.  I thought I just tried to let the game come to me. It shows that when Cole and I are on the court at the same time that we can produce,” according to Collins.

“Their two best players had terrific games,” said Pearl who was clearly not happy with the play of his team. “We really didn’t have an answer for (Sherron) Collins. Collins did whatever he wanted out there. Defensively it didn’t matter what we did, whether it was pressure, zone or man.”

The team got a lift from Mario Little’s return to the lineup. Little, wearing a protective glove on his hand with the no fingers, also had his stress fractured leg taped up. Little looked rusty but showed enough to make fans believe he could be a help in the coming weeks if he can stay healthy.

“He will help a lot,” Collins said when asked if Little’s return would help. “His scoring, his sense of toughness and his rebounding. When he gets back to 100% his rebounding will increase and he will also score a lot for us. He will bring a sense of urgency and toughness to our team and another perimeter player that we need.”

Brady Morningstar continues to surprise against more athletic opposition on the defensive end and he and Tyrel Reed continue to shoot it well from long range (5-10 three-point FG Saturday). With the game tightening up towards the end freshman Tyshawn Taylor made some key plays (12 points). Travis Releford hasn’t played as often as he’d like this year but he took a step towards giving Self the type of effort on the defensive end and on the glass the coach has asked for. The Morris twins both fouled out of this one but matched the toughness of Tennessee and Marcus gave the Hawks seven points and six rebounds before his departure.

Defensively though they gave up 85 points, Kansas again held its opponent under 40 percent shooting (39.4) for the eighth time this year. But the most impressive team stat might be the 25 assists on 34 field goals. That means the Jayhawks played Bill Self’s style of basketball on both ends of the court.

There will be more tests in the coming week with a game against Siena on the horizon and the sternest test of them all – a trip to East Lansing to take on a hot Michigan State team. Then Big 12 conference play will begin.

But for today Kansas outhustled and outworked one of the toughest teams in the country largely because Collins and Aldrich led and even more importantly, their teammates followed.

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