Thursday September 24th, 2009

I'm still planning on putting Kansas No. 1 in my preseason rankings. The Jayhawks are too experienced, too talented, too deep to be ranked anywhere else. I know what I saw last season, when point guard Sherron Collins emerged as one of the country's best leaders; and in the NCAA tournament, when center Cole Aldrich established himself as a premier defensive stopper. I know what I saw in New York in April, when wing recruit Xavier Henry looked like a future pro in workouts for the Jordan Brand All-Star Classic; and in in Colorado in June, when two-guard Tyshawn Taylor was gearing up to star on USA Basketball's gold-medal-winning Under-19 team.

Those were all positive images. But now? The strongest KU image is a video filmed by student newspaper The University Kansan on Wednesday morning. It's 50 uncomfortable seconds long, and mostly silent. It shows a procession of Kansas players being led through a loading dock area at Wescoe Hall by an associate athletic director, and then climbing into a white van.

The mood is funereal, for whatever good reputation they had built up around hoops nation has died. Taylor dislocated his left thumb in a fight with KU football players the previous evening, and the crew in the video has just been involved in a third physical altercation with Jayhawk footballers -- reportedly over girlfriend issues -- in less than 24 hours, each incident drawing responses from campus police.

Collins is there, with his head bowed and his hat pulled down and to the side; so is Elijah Johnson, with his hood pulled up; and four others, whose faces are turned away from the camera. There are no cuffs or cops, because no one was interested in pressing charges.

What it loosely resembles, though, is a perp walk. And that's the picture of Kansas basketball, a month and a half before it begins its run at a second national title in three years: That of a team foolish enough to brawl -- thrice -- with its own school's outsized football players in the middle of campus, all while coach Bill Self is on the road trying to recruit. If KU is victorious in Indianapolis next March, the Jayhawks can title the season DVD, From Perp Walk To Podium: National Champs!

Taylor has the most to live down from this mess, as he served up a series of incriminating Facebook messages that have already become entered in the Internet lexicon. After being injured (in altercation No. 1) and taken to the hospital on Tuesday night, he posted this status update early Wednesday morning:

"I got a dislocated finger ... from throwing a punch ... so don't let the news paper gas yall up aite"

Shortly before that, he had written, "real n----s do real things .. point plankn."

Three pre-fight status updates from Tuesday seemed to make rather bold threats at the opposing party. At 11:12 a.m., Taylor wrote, "keep my name out ya' mouth for you get smacked in it." At 11:44 a.m., he wrote, "never get outta character .. I'm always a G about it." And at 3:13 p.m. he declared, "n----s be muggin me know I'm muggin back."

The latter is a quote of a Lil' Wayne song, Always Strapped, but that doesn't make it any more excusable: The song talks about carrying guns into clubs -- a practice that Plaxico Burress would probably warn young athletes against. Taylor's cumulative body of work on Facebook threw some sportswriters down the regrettable path of amusing themselves by deciphering "jive," but the fact that an African-American 19-year-old from Hoboken, N.J., wouldn't choose the same fighting words as a middle-aged white man from the Midwest is no revelation.

What we really learned here was that Taylor, who came from the well-regarded St. Anthony's program in New Jersey and was by all accounts an exemplary member of the U.S. Under-19 team this summer, thought protecting his own street rep was more important than maintaining his team's public rep. Perhaps the NBA buzz that surrounded him this summer was a little premature.

Taylor wasn't the only one who got physical: At the third altercation, on Wednesday morning, a student witness told the Kansan that one of the basketball team's Morris twins -- Marcus or Markieff -- had shoved a football player down a flight of stairs at Budig Hall. The football player, who had allegedly yelled, "What did you say?" and then charged up the stairs at one of the Morrises, was caught by teammates before suffering any injury. (Markieff, it should be noted, faced a battery charge as a freshman for allegedly shooting a 47-year-old woman with a BB gun from a dorm room window.)

Collins was also said to be involved. A student source quoted in The Kansan said, "Mario Little told me football players had beef with Sherron. [Little] said they were talking trash." Multiple student sources told SI that Collins was known to have had prior disagreements with KU football players, and that tensions between the two teams had been mounting for some time.

By late Wednesday, however, after the basketball and football players had been shepherded away from Wescoe Hall -- and spoken to by athletic director Lew Perkins -- they issued a joint statement intended to smooth over the incidents. It was signed by Aldrich and Collins, and by football players Kerry Meier, Todd Reesing, Jake Sharp and Darrell Stuckey. It said, in part, "We realize that over the past couple of days we've let a disagreement between a few guys grow bigger than it ever should have. We're embarrassed about that."

The damage had already been done, thanks to Facebook and streaming video. While watching Wednesday's clip, I thought back to the national title game in San Antonio in 2008, and how I'd encountered a number of unaffiliated fans who were rooting for Kansas to beat Memphis because, well, they thought the Jayhawks were more virtuous than the "thuggish" Tigers. That assessment may not have been fair to Memphis, but Tigers forward Joey Dorsey had, just before that season, been accused of punching someone over a trivial matter at a club, then fleeing the scene before the cops arrived.

Dorsey was never charged with a crime then, and neither were any of the Jayhawks on Wednesday. But there were fewer bystanders in Dorsey's case, and no video of the aftermath. There's video in Lawrence. It ends with that white van, full of players, pulling out of the loading dock and into the harsh sunlight. That, unfortunately, is where Kansas' road to the Final Four begins.

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