Collins and Aldrich the Center of Attention

It is 3:20 this Monday afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse. Sherron Collins has just walked out the locker room and meets with reporters before practice, where the Jayhawks are preparing for the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City and their opening game Thursday morning (11:30 CST) with either Baylor or Nebraska.

(The Jayhawks will now face Baylor, which beat NU, 65-49 today).

A horde of media swarm the 5-11 junior point guard with cameras, microphones, and tape recorders as he takes a seat and answers a flurry of questions.

Soon, sophomore center Cole Aldrich strides out of the locker room and stands by a nearby wall as reporters flock towards the 6-11 star.

It's certainly not surprising that Aldrich and Collins are the center of attention. Heck, that's been the case all year. But the spotlight now shines even brighter this postseason on the dynamic duo, who led KU to its fifth straight conference championship and were chosen to the All-Big 12 First Team by the league coaches and Associated Press. Aldrich was also named the co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

"Me and Cole have been working," Collins said about the honors. "Coach (Bill Self) did a good job with us. We all bought into coach's system."

Self is certainly proud of his two leaders.

"I'm really happy for Sherron and Cole," Self said. "They both deserve the recognition. Without exception, you could say they have been two of the most consistent players in the Big 12. As the two leaders of this team, it is also a reflection of how their teammates have matured throughout the year."

They are different in black and white, short and tall, inner city and suburbia. But they share a common denominator and purpose. Collins and Aldrich are the go-to players and the two guys who will likely have the final say in how far KU advances in the Big 12 Tournament and Big Dance.

Collins can create his shot and penetrate the lane at will, while Aldrich is an imposing presence in the middle on both offense and defense. If KU needs a bucket in crunch time, Collins can drive the lane and either score or dish to Aldrich. Or the Jayhawks can throw the ball into Aldrich and let him get a bucket.

Their improvement this season has been dramatic. After averaging just 2.8 points in 8.3 minutes per game last year as the fourth big man in the rotation, Aldrich has elevated his play to another level this season. He enters the postseason with 18 double-doubles (No. 2 in Big 12) while averaging 14.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and a Big 12-best 2.5 blocks per game. Aldrich's 77 blocks rank sixth all time for a single season at KU, and at his current pace, Aldrich would finish second in single-season blocks behind Greg Ostertag if Kansas advances to the championship game of the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA Elite Eight.

Aldrich was elated to receive first-team All-Big 12 honors.

"I think it's great," Aldrich said. "It's really exciting because preseason nobody really kind of thought anything of me or our guys on the team. Sherron was kind of the guy in the spotlight. I think my hard work over the past two years has really paid off."

Collins, too, has worked tirelessly the last three years and remarkably improved his game. As the first guard off the bench last season, Collins averaged 9.3 points and 3.1 assists in 23.8 minutes per game. He was hampered by injuries, but came on strong at the end of the season. While he reported to school last August overweight after recovering from knee surgery, Collins quickly got in shape and accepted a pivotal leadership role.

He called this his team and was the one who motivated his younger teammates to pick up the energy level in practice after a sluggish start earlier this season. Collins has guided this team vocally and by his stellar play. He's almost doubled his scoring average this season to 18.3 points per game, while also dishing out 5.0 assists per contest. Collins has led (or tied for the lead) the team in scoring in 23 of 31 games and ranks among the league leaders in several categories, including scoring (No. 4), assists (No. 4), free throw percentage (No. 6 at .800) and three-point field goals made (10th at 2.2).

Like Aldrich, Collins was honored over being named first-team All-Big 12.

"It's a great accomplishment," he said. "I finally got a little bit of recognition, but it's not so much a big deal. The conference (regular season) is over with. There's a lot of good players on that list, but my teammates helped me get it. I'm thankful for them."

Collins is proud of his leadership role this season and how far KU's come since December.

"I think I did a good job of leading a group of young guys," he said. "I'm just pleased they listened to me. I told them (to) listen to coach and me. I pretty much lived through it and coach has been through it. They did not know, and they were eager to learn.

"I think I had it in me, but I knew it would be hard to get it out. It was actually more easier than I thought it would be. I think I've matured a lot over the three years. I think I've matured as a young man."

After winning the Big 12 championship, Collins and Aldrich now hope to lead KU (25-6, 14-2 Big 12) to a conference tournament title in Oklahoma City and gain a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. The stakes are high, but KU is in good hands with its two stars manning the most important positions on the court.

"In high school, we kind of lacked a point guard and I struggled at times because it's tough if you don't have a point guard to get the ball inside," Aldrich said. "And there's only so much a point guard can do (without a center). I think the combination of Sherron and I really puts teams in a tough place because they got to have a really good point guard that can defend Sherron and then have another big guy that can defend me inside."

Thus far, opponents haven't had much success stopping Collins, Aldrich, and the No. 9 Jayhawks. However, critics still believe KU is the underdog behind Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament despite winning the regular-season conference title.

"Nobody believes in us," Collins said. "We just want to come out and show everybody what we're capable of doing. We still don't get the respect we're supposed to get. We got the best record. We are the best team in the Big 12."

And with Collins and Aldrich, KU has two of the best in the Big 12.

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