In KU's 67-62 loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis, Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins combined for 37 points on 15-of-26 field goal shooting. Their teammates, however, scored just 25 points on a dismal 9-of-27 shooting.
The Jayhawks learned an invaluable lesson in that Sweet 16 loss.
"I think we learned a lot about ourselves, just from a toughness standpoint and really it takes a team to win it all," junior guard Tyrel Reed said at Media Day in October. "Last year, Cole and Sherron did a good job of bringing the young guys along, myself included. Hopefully this year we have a big bunch of guys who can really play together."
While Aldrich and Collins remain the heart and soul of the Jayhawks, KU now has a "team to win it all." At press time in mid-January, seven different players have either tied or led the team in scoring each game. KU also boasted four players averaging in double figures, led by the senior point guard Collins (15.6 ppg), freshman swingman Xavier Henry (15.1 ppg), sophomore forward Marcus Morris (11.6 ppg), and junior center Aldrich (10.8 ppg).
Last year, Collins and Aldrich tied or led the team in scoring in 32 of 35 games. They were also the only two players who averaged in double figures with Collins at 18.9 ppg and Aldrich at 14.9 ppg.
In 2008-09, Aldrich and Collins accounted for 44.2 percent of the team's scoring. That's down to 31 percent this season with the dynamic duo tying or leading the team in scoring in just eight of KU's first 17 games.
There's more scoring help this year and also more help on the boards.
Last year, Aldrich was the only rebounding force at 11.1 rebounds per game. The second-best rebounder was Marcus Morris (4.7 rpg), followed by Markieff Morris (4.4 rpg) and Mario Little (3.3 rpg). Now, KU has four players averaging at least 4.1 rebounds per game with Aldrich (10.2 rpg), Marcus Morris (5.4 rpg), Markieff Morris (5.1 rpg), and Henry (4.1 rpg).
The 2009-10 Jayhawks indeed have more parts to the championship puzzle.
Henry has shown star potential, the Morris twins have considerably improved, sophomore guard Tyshawn Taylor is elevating his game after a rough start, Reed is a proven shooter as a reserve, junior guard Brady Morningstar is a superb defender and another quality perimeter shooter, and freshman forward Thomas Robinson provides instant rebounding off the bench.
"This is the deepest team I've ever coached," said KU coach Bill Self, who's in his 17h season overall as head coach.
"Not everybody is going to play or be happy with their playing time. But hopefully everyone will be happy with the results."
If the results are similar to the 2008 NCAA Championship team, then the Jayhawks should be pretty happy. With its depth, this team resembles the 2007-08 Jayhawks. That squad also went nine deep with stars Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darnell Jackson and Darrell Arthur, and complementary players in Collins, Aldrich, Sasha Kaun, Russell Robinson and Rodrick Stewart.
Like this year's team, the 2007-08 squad had seven different players lead the team in scoring each game. Self liked to say the go-to man that year was the open man.
While Collins is the go-to player this season, Kansas has other players like Xavier Henry, Aldrich and Marcus Morris who can play starring roles on any night. In KU's 89-63 victory over Texas Tech on Jan. 16, Collins was held to just nine points yet Marcus Morris took over with 20 points and the Jayhawks still beat a quality Big 12 team by 26 points.
KU just needs Morris and company to continue elevating their games in conference play. Aldrich believes they will.
"I think it really helps us at times because we have so many different guys that can step up," said Aldrich, who still needs to become more aggressive offensively.
"I think that's really hard to scout, just because I could have a big night, Sherron could have a great night, or one of the twins, or anybody on our roster can really step up."
Cal coach Mike Montgomery agrees. He said KU has "a lot of people and you'd hard pressed to say who is their star" after his team lost to the Jayhawks, 84-69, on Dec. 22. "Who is their best player? Gee, they have about eight of them. That gives them a lot of flexibility."
La Salle coach John Giannini sees no holes on this roster.
"Watching them on tape, I do not think that they have any weaknesses," Giannini said after KU beat his Explorers, 90-65, on Dec. 12. "They have a point guard who can make plays, they have guys that can shoot it, they have guys that can score inside, and guys that defend hard. I think they are really good."
They are a "really good" team without any egos. At press time, KU ranked No. 7 in the country in assists at 18.5 per game.
"We're very unselfish (people) and that translates on the court," Xavier Henry said. "Good things come to you. Everybody is not too into themselves. ... Our goal is (to win the rest of our games) and not for everybody to go to the NBA or for everybody to average 30."
More than any player, Collins embodies this unselfish team attitude. He sacrificed his scoring in the nonconference season to get his teammates involved. But when needed against Cornell in early January, Collins put KU on his back, scoring a career-high 33 points to rally the Jayhawks to a 71-66 victory.
"I know I can do it," Collin said afterwards. "I did it last year all the time. I wasn't too worried about my scoring going down (from last season). I don't care. I just want to win. That's what I'm here for. It's my last year, I want to go out with a bang. Whatever I have to do to win, that's what I'm going to do."
While a loss at Tennessee a game later to end the nonconference season showed some team flaws (such as lack of poise and toughness), Kansas was regrouping as it embarked on the rough and tumble Big 12 play and looking to prove it can come together in pressure situations, and as Self said, defensively "make other teams play bad
Self knows the conference schedule will be especially demanding this year, headed by No. 1 Texas (at press time).
"(The league is) the best it's been since I've been here," Self said.
The Jayhawks hope to find their identity in the Big 12 race as last year's team did after they suffered a disappointing 75-62 setback at Michigan State to close the non-con season. That squad responded by winning eight straight and 14 of their next 16 to capture a share of their fifth straight conference championship.
The 2009-10 Jayhawks will be shooting for a sixth Big 12 title and their sixth national championship, including two in the last three years.
With a host of talent and parts to mix with Collins and Aldrich, this is the Jayhawks' chance to leave an indelible impact on Kansas basketball.
"We have talked about it with Cole and Sherron," Self said in preseason. "They have a chance to leave their mark on this place in a way that few have. I guess you go back to the 1922-1923 years when guys were able to string together back-to-back titles (Helms Foundation National Championships). These guys can't do that, but to think you may be in the game to put two out of three up there, that is pretty special."
Indeed, it is.
KU is ready to live up to their preseason No. 1 ranking and seize the moment and cut down the national championship nets at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on April 5.
"Our goal is to win it all and we know how to do it," Xavier Henry said.
And they'll aim to do it as a TEAM.
"I think that's one thing that really makes us (great)," Aldrich said, "is just the way we share the ball and the fun loving basketball we play."