Warming Up As It Is Cooling Down [Originally posted on sportsblog.com 10/24/13]

There is an excitement here in Lawrence that is hard to describe if you are not here experiencing it. It’s been a quietly slow buildup in this sleepy little town, but you can see the excitement creeping onto the locals’ faces.

You’ll see people here wearing the Jayhawks swag year round–but they seem to wear it with a different fervor now that the basketball season is (nearly) here.

The first game against Pittsburgh State is next Tuesday the 29th. Jayhawks tickets have been notoriously difficult to obtain for non-students and non-big wig donors. I looked up a ticket for KU- Georgetown on Stub Hub and the cheapest ticket could be fetched for a little over 200 dollars.

I imagine a ticket to this first game will be nearly impossible to get if you don’t already have one. The first game I ever went to nearly two years ago, I paid 80 bucks to a scalper. That team wasn’t nearly as hyped as this one–with Andrew Wiggins and the other flock of new athletic faces on this year’s roster.

Over 3,000 people were turned away for “Late Night at the Phog”, an event where the town gets to first see the (both Men and Women) basketball team in action during scrimmages. It’s an open event that is free to the public, but it is first come first served seating. Many people waited in line for over 3 hours, only to get turned away at the door because the capacity was met so quickly (There are many accounts of people saying there was a large rush towards the building doors when they were opened–many people eschewing social courtesies and typical decency to cut in front of the people who were waiting in line).

In honor of the upcoming season (my first here in town) I’d like to reflect on some of the past Jayhawks who left their mark on the town and the team. These were guys who for one reason or another I had to watch their every move on the court. There was something about their game that made me pay attention to them and made me love their style of play.

Honorable Mention goes to :

Brandon Rush was a bad boy for sure. I remember him in two distinct games during his career at KU. One of them was the Florida game they played in 2006 out in Las Vegas (Still one of the best collegiate games I have ever seen–just for sheer number of future NBA players on the floor that night) where Rush hit some timely corner 3’s against that terrific Florida team (With Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Cory Brewer). The Jayhawks went on to win that overtime classic thanks to some big time play from Rush.

F Paul Pierce (1995-1998), G Jacque Vaughn (1993-1997), and C Scot Pollard (1993-1997)

While there is no doubt that three above mentioned players were ill. The reason they make honorable mention is because I was watching a lot of Wolverine basketball during these years. I was blinded by the flash and brash of the Fab Five. Kansas basketball was something I watched if nothing else was on. I remember being aware of Pierce, Vaughn and Pollard (seemed like every other week there was a human interest piece about Scot Pollard and his ‘wacky’ lifestyle).
There was a guy from Duncanville, Texas (also the birthplace of the late Elliot Smith) who had gone to Kansas, Greg Ostertag. This initiated some interest for me, but I really only remember three things during this time period:

1) Kansas having these incredible regular season records

2)Kansas getting knocked out earlier than expected

3) Tearful Roy Williams press conferences.

G Adonis Jordan (1989-1993), G Rex Walters (1991-1993)

This back court was my introduction to Kansas basketball. This was the first NCAA tourney I watched from beginning to end on the little black and white television that I had in my bedroom.These guys were ill. I remember Rex being kind of a grimey little guy–a hustler who could shoot, handle the rock, and a decent passer.

It was fun watching him match up against future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, and Bobby Hurley, who was arguably the best point guard in the country then. Rex held his own. Adonis Jordan originally got lumped in because that was his back court mate. I honestly don’t remember any particular plays by him. I think I just thought his name was cool. I recently tried watching a game from that tournament on that NCAA website where you can watch past games. I had to turn it off because I couldn’t get past how archaic the film footage looked (and those awfully short shorts).

Now that we have the runner ups out of the way, let’s get to it.

G Kirk Hinrich (1999-2003), F Nick Collison (1999-2003)

This Iowa tandem re-piqued my interest in KU hoops and led me down the road to here. Watching them play together was a real treat. I can distinctly remember extending my treadmill workout an extra 20 minutes so I could watch Nick Collison put up a 23 point-20 rebound game against Texas. The game that stands out most to me was the 30-20 he put up against Duke in the Elite Eight. Collison impressed me with his footwork and at how easily he got to the rim. I remember thinking that he was going to be the second coming of Kevin McHale (I was 23 what did I know?).

Hinrich was a bad boy himself. Like Rex Walters 2.0 except he played the 2 guard.He had a sweet stroke and he was a hustler .

He could also get up and punch it on you too. Just ask Lebron.

G Keith Langford (2001-2005)

I liked Keith even before I found out he was a Texan. Bro could finish at the rim. He was fast and he a wicked left handed leaner that reminded me of Jalen Rose. While Collison might be my favorite Jayhawk of all time, Keith was the most exciting to watch. I still to this day think that if Roy Williams doesn’t leave Langford guarding Carmelo Anthony after getting 3 fouls that they win that 2003 championship. Langford was the only one who get easy looks against that Orange 2-3 zone defense.

SF Julian Wright (2005-2007)

Julian is another guy who I thought would have a better pro career. He had great hands, awesome court vision and was one of the best passing big men to come through Lawrence. He was also super agile and could get his own shot anytime he wanted. He could hit the jumper from up in the high post or he could feed it to a cutter along the baseline. If there is anything that will get me excited, it’s a big man who can pass the rock.

Julian also threw down some of the nastiest dunks in Jayhawks’ history.The 2006 Florida game I alluded to earlier was the first time I got to see him play. He put on a clinic that night. Unfortunately he has never been more than a 7th, 8th, 9th man role player off the bench at best. I think had he stayed through his senior year he would have had his jersey retired and been one of the best of all time.

Quick side note: If you ever see a photo of Mario’s miracle shot from the ’08 title game look at the spectators behind the basket and you will see Wright watching the arc of the ball like everyone else at the game. When I first saw this I thought, “Damn Julian got some premium seats. That’s what’s up.” Then I thought, “Wait a minute he should have been playing in this game. It wouldn’t have been that close had he been playing.”

How about that? If Julian stays an extra year maybe Mario doesn’t need to make that shot and becomes a second round pick without all the accolades from hitting that shot. Perhaps ends up somewhere besides Miami and perhaps he isn’t there to hit timely shots when the Heat need someone to step up. Who is to say this doesn’t affect how we look at Lebron’s legacy at this point? Maybe Lebron doesn’t get those championships after all? Who would have thought that Julian’s decision to leave school early could have possibly changed the landscape of the NBA? We could easily be praising Kevin Durant as the greatest basketball player on the planet (though he’s still a close second).

C Drew Gooden (1999-2002)

Drew Gooden is a pretty textbook case of someone who peaked out early. When he left college in 2002, his stock couldn’t have gotten any higher. He ended up being a number 4 pick and unfortunately ended up being a poor man’s Carlos Boozer. Who is to say what happens if he comes back his senior year. I’m sure there was just as much chance of him getting seriously hurt like Nerlen Noels and missing out on the season (and a fatter paycheck) as there was to him leading the Jayhawks to an ’03 title over Syracuse. I watched him destroy so many teams single-handedly that 2002 season where they finally lost to Maryland. That was a tough front line to face with Collison, Wayne Simien, and Gooden (really unfortunate Simien couldn’t stay healthy).

F Darrell Arthur (2006-2008)

Another Texas boy who went to South Oak Cliff High school in Dallas. The fact that he went to a DISD school endured me to Darrell. His game was fun though. He could get up in a second and mash it in someone’s face. I really liked that front line of Darrell Arthur, Julian Wright, and Sasha Kaun. They often had spacing issues in those days, but that high post through Julian was a money play. Darrell was often the recipient of a great pass that led to an easy layup or dunk. He’s in the pro’s now and is a valuable role player in the league. I think Memphis will miss him this year.

G Ben McLemore

The future is wide open for Mr. Ben McLemore. I think he can be a very good player if he can surround himself with the right people. I think at worst he can be a Rudy Gay type player, and at best? Maybe I’ll regret saying this, but I could see him having a Ray Allen type career. He will get his points for sure, but I’m curious how well he will play on the defensive side of the ball, and he will be able to do anything beside score?
I thoroughly enjoyed watching him play last year. When this little golden era of KU hoops is over, we will look at McLemore the same way Texas fans think of TJ Ford. Ford’s signing at UT opened up a nice stream of top recruits coming to Texas and making an impact (including the second best player alive, Kevin Durant).

McLemore was the only thing watchable about last year’s offense. No one else on the team could consistently create their own shot. If anyone else on that starting five had the ball in their possession for more than five seconds, it was almost a guaranteed turnover.

As disappointing as it was to see KU lose that heart breaker to Michigan last year, that squad overachieved (you can say that about the last 2 Bill Self led teams–a testament to his coaching ability).There were countless ugly brick-fests that KU would barely squeak out. They should have lost more games last year and finally their luck ran out when they couldn’t secure a 12 point lead with 4 minutes left. Most of those squeakers that they won was because Maclemore was the best player on the court (with the only exception being the game where Elijah Johnson went crazy and scored 41 points against Iowa State). Trey Burke was the best player on that March evening. Mclemore barely got any decent touches down the stretch and the buzzed went off as Elijah Johnson passed up a layup to throw an errant pass to Naadir Tharpe on the 3 point line. We all know how that ended.

McLemore’s season opened up a pipeline to blue chip recruits coming here to Lawrence and getting in on the action. KU”s stock as dynasty couldn’t be higher. KU has the number one player in the country. The guy anointed to be the “next Lebron and Durant”. There is so much hype surrounding this team and Self would have had his best recruiting class of all time had he not landed Andrew Wiggins.

Lawrence is going to be treated to a cavalcade of talented players during the next 2-4 years.

Wiggins is a one and done and maybe a couple of other players, but there are juniors in high school already eyeing some of the holes that will be left in the next year or two. Also some of the guys not as heavily profiled like Conner Frankamp (Rex Walters 3.0?) will probably be there for the full four years. Kansas will not only be solid for this period, but will be a top 5 team contender as well. We may be looking at a run of dominance that resembles the Roy Williams teams with Pierce, Vaughn, and Pollard.

Andrew Wiggins has already made his mark here and he hasn’t played a second of ball yet. He will undoubtedly be the major force this year but he will also have a lot of help. It will be interesting to see how many more of these impact players will live on in Jayhawks’ folklore.

One thing is for certain, the excitement is only beginning.

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