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Friday, January 25, 2008

Mike DeCourcy - Kansas cruising under the radar at No. 2

Kansas cruising under the radar at No. 2
Posted: January 23, 2008

Memphis is running up in front, absorbing all the wind resistance that comes with being ranked highest in the polls. Kansas sits comfortably behind. If this were a NASCAR race or a 1,500-meter run, we might say the Jayhawks are drafting.

Memphis owns the No. 1 ranking in both polls and is second in the Ratings Percentage Index. The Tigers are most commonly presented as the leading candidate to carry a perfect record into the postseason. North Carolina held the No. 1 spot up until losing last weekend. But inside the circle of those who coach, who scout, who follow the game most closely, Kansas is talked about with the highest degree of reverence.

This is an enviable position: possibly the best team with definitely the least attention.

"I think it's fine," coach Bill Self says. "Those teams are legitimately good. I think it's allowed us to operate with less interest level from the media standpoint. Being ranked No. 1 or 2 right now ... it doesn't mean anything."

Kansas' schedule has been plenty demanding in terms of location -- with a home game against Arizona mixed in with road trips to Southern California, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Missouri -- but has lacked the sexy non-league matchup that might have commanded everyone's attention.

So KU quietly has chewed up every opponent in its path, overwhelming victims with its brazen defense and obnoxious wealth of offensive weapons. In a recent nine-game stretch, the Jayhawks were led in scoring by seven different players. They can score inside with bigs Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson. Wing Brandon Rush can hit from long range. Guards Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins can attack off the dribble.

They are so selfless the only thing standing between the Jayhawks and the Final Four might be mass enrollment in the Peace Corps.

"We're sharing the wealth, and everybody's playing their part in moving the ball," says point guard Russell Robinson, who manages it all. "We have a lot of options. The open guy shoots it; that's our main objective."

Of the nation's elite teams, KU has the most feared defense. Chalmers and Rush are lockdown defenders, and Jackson and backup center Sasha Kaun block shots. The Jayhawks are so adept at ripping the ball from opposing hands they sometimes gamble at the wrong times.

It's not easy to find flaws in the Jayhawks at this point. Self and Robinson both said the team could improve in "late-game situations," which seems logical, because recently the regulars' late-game routine is to watch the walk-ons mop up another blowout. It's hard to get good at something you never do, so this is regularly addressed in practice.

"They're enjoying just playing the season," Self says. "They're enjoying the practices, enjoying each other. Our five seniors have a chance to win four league titles in a row. They look at that as a goal, something they're eager to do. It's been a fun group. They're just light on their feet every day."

Always realistic about his teams, Self can't help but feel optimism about this group. But the sunshine grows a little too bright when he says of the No. 2 ranking, "I don't think, by any means, it is a show of disrespect for us."

Well, of course it is. As it was when one major publication ranked the Jayhawks No. 8 in the preseason despite the Jayhawks bringing back all but one key player from a 30-win team, or when a well-known sports web site last week featured video of an analyst suggesting KU consistently underperforms in March.

Kansas is caught in the mythology of the tournament, which demands some team -- or, preferably, some coach -- be labeled an underachiever because of upset losses here or there. Self has been to the Elite Eight four times in the past eight seasons, and to the Sweet 16 two others years in that stretch. That is a marvelous tournament record. But many define him by the Jayhawks' consecutive first-round losses, in 2005 and 2006, and by the absence of a Final Four appearance.

In fact, Self's .640 tournament winning percentage is better than Jim Calhoun's record before Connecticut won the 1999 title, better than Lute Olson's before Arizona became champion in 1997. Opposing fans hoping Self will get in the Jayhawks' way will have to wish they encounter other obstacles.

For instance, North Carolina or Memphis. "I watch their games. I'm a basketball fan myself," Robinson says. "They're definitely fun to watch. You can make a lot of arguments that we're better, they're better. But my thought is, until the game is played you won't really know."

Robinson knows if such games occur, they will happen on a very big stage: the Final Four perhaps, and no sooner than the Elite Eight.

"That's what I look forward to," he says. "Hopefully, that day will come."

Mike DeCourcy is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at

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