LAWRENCE, Kan. -- It's a fine late-October afternoon on Massachusetts Street, sunny and just south of 60 degrees, and I'm eating fried dill pickles at Jefferson's Restaurant with a very tall man who's missing his left front tooth. This is my first fried-pickle experience. It is not his. "You have to get them at the Minnesota State Fair," he told me on the way in, in a thick Minnesota Norwegian accent. "They have fried everything there. Fried candy bars on a stick, fried mac and cheese on a stick, fried pickles -- it's disgusting how much fried stuff they have." An appetizer of Jefferson's pickles, ordered at his recommendation, is $5.50, comes with a side of ranch sauce, and is far from disgusting.
Most of the patrons looked up at us when we came in, and they are occasionally stealing glances at our table. The pickles are not the spectacle; it's just that the tall man is Cole Aldrich, the Jayhawks' 6-foot-11 center from Bloomington, Minn., and probably one of the three most famous people in Lawrence along with coach Bill Self and point guard Sherron Collins. No one bothers Aldrich for the entire meal, and I'm not sure if it's because this is a polite Midwestern town, or because he's intimidating. That missing tooth is giving him the look of a ruthless hockey enforcer from the Northwoods.
The tooth was chipped in a collision with either Kansas State's Luis Colon or Ron Anderson in February -- Aldrich isn't sure who -- and then knocked out for good in a practice a few days later. It was supposed to be fixed this offseason, but an infection stalled the process; all Aldrich has now is a clip-in prosthetic, which he frequently keeps in his pocket rather than his mouth. His roommate of three years, KU shooting guard Tyrel Reed, suspects that Aldrich has been leaving it out on purpose, for effect. "He's probably the goofiest guy I know," says Reed. "Big white people tend to breathe a different air."
In one of the framed photos on Jefferson's wall, maybe 10 feet over his right shoulder, Aldrich is just a speck, standing in the back of a red sports car making its way through a sea of people. It's an aerial shot of the Jayhawks' motorcade passing this very block during the victory parade for their 2008 national championship, when a crowd of 80,000 flooded the streets of Lawrence. Aldrich was a freshman who had averaged 2.8 points and 3.0 rebounds in 8.3 minutes per game, playing in a rotation behind Darrell Arthur and Darnell Jackson, who both went on to the NBA, as well as Russian-born sixth man Sasha Kaun, who signed a lucrative deal with CSKA Moscow. Although Aldrich had an impact on the NCAA tournament -- he outplayed Tyler Hansbrough in the Final Four rout of North Carolina -- he said he still felt like he was "on the sidelines, rooting for the other guys, because we were so talented."
This would be the season for Aldrich to win a title that's decidedly his own. He and Collins are both preseason All-America candidates, and the team, despite the on-campus fighting incidents that sullied their image in September, should be a near-unanimous No. 1 in every preseason poll. That's something that not even the '08 title club could claim. They started in line behind North Carolina, UCLA and Memphis in various polls, partly because of the talent those teams had, and partly because Kansas had acquired a reputation of choking in the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament. Following the '08 championship, and last season's surprise Big 12 regular-season title and run to the Sweet 16, that rep is all but gone.
Jefferson's primary decorating scheme -- more than the photos -- is dollar bills, personalized by diners and taped to nearly every open inch of wall space. KU's basketball sports information director, Chris Theisen, who deals in plenty of statistics, asks the waitress how much cash is on display, and she says, "Somewhere between 12 and 15 thousand." It seems like a good a place as any to ask Aldrich about passing on the NBA draft: No matter where he turns in this restaurant, quite a bit of money is staring him in the face.
Aldrich had been told that, after a sophomore season in which he averaged 14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds, he could've been drafted somewhere between No. 6 and No. 12 pick this past June. "And who knows," he says, "I could have had a good workout against [UConn's Hasheem] Thabeet" -- the center taken No. 2 overall -- "and moved up even higher." But there was no real deliberation on the matter, not even with his father, Walt, struggling to find work after being laid off from his sheet-metal job in the Twin Cities. He had his parents' blessing to make his own choice. "I knew I wanted to come back even before the season ended," Cole says. "I was having too much fun in college."
Aldrich first came to KU's campus as a ninth grader. His AAU coach, Steve Heinen, took Aldrich and a few friends on a roadtrip from Bloomington to Lawrence to see Bill Self's first game as a head coach, a 90-76 win over Tennessee-Chattanooga on Nov. 21, 2003. Minnesota had been recruiting Aldrich since the eighth grade, and he wasn't even on the Jayhawks' recruiting radar at that point, but he fell in love with Allen Fieldhouse, eventually caught Self's eye, and committed by his junior year. In Aldrich's de facto homecoming to the Twin Cities, for the opening rounds of this past NCAA tournament at the Metrodome, he put on a show for the locals (including his parents), recording the first triple-double in Kansas history with 13 points, 20 rebounds and 10 blocks to help beat Dayton for a trip to the Sweet 16.
His celebrity in Minnesota has its limits, though: When the PGA Championship came to Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn., this summer, a friend invited Aldrich to take in the first day of practice rounds.
There, a fellow spectator walked up and said, "Hey, are you Joel Przybilla?"
"Przybilla?" Aldrich said. "I look better than Przybilla!"
Przybilla, who now plays for the Trailblazers, is the last great white Minnesota center to stay home and play for the Gophers -- at least for a year and half, before he left Dan Monson's club in 2000 and turned pro. Aldrich uses his iPhone at the table to look up Przybilla on Wikipedia, to figure out which high school he went to (Monticello) and where he was drafted (No. 9 overall by the Rockets in 2000). "My buddy still makes fun of me for that Przybilla thing," Aldrich says, "but you know what? If someone wants to say I look like a 30 million dollar man, go for it. I'd love to have that money someday and be playing in the league for 10 years."
I asked him to look up where he's listed on DraftExpress' mock for 2010. The answer: "Four." He only puts so much stock in it: "It all depends on where the ping pong balls go," he says. "You could have five teams at the top who don't need a center."
But most teams do need a center, and few good ones are available: Asked to name the other true five-men in college basketball this year, Aldrich gets to Texas' Dexter Pittman, Georgetown's Greg Monroe ("who's sort of a center," Aldrich says), Tulsa's Jerome Jordan, and stops.
Collins didn't believe Aldrich had All-America potential when he first showed up on campus three years ago. ("I saw him and thought, 'Whoa, we've got a lot of work to do,'" Collins said.) But the Jayhawks' senior point guard told me earlier in the day that 50 percent of his own decision to stay out of the draft was based on the fact that Aldrich was returning, and the idea of them chasing a second national title together. "Now," Collins says, "he's the best big man in the country."
I stuck around to see KU work out on Monday in their brand-new practice facility. Herewith is the lowdown on the 2009-10 team:
HEART AND SOUL: Collins. Aldrich has stepped up his vocal presence, and I saw Tyshawn Taylor taking it upon himself to give instructions to freshman guard Elijah Johnson, but it's clear that Collins is the leader of this team. He's probably the most assertive, confident point guard in the country, and as Aldrich said, "There's nobody else in the nation I'd rather have with the ball in their hands at the end of the game than Sherron." Self expects Collins to make a bigger impact this year even though he might score less: "He'll be better this year," Self says, "because he's got better weapons around him."
MOST IMPROVED: Markieff Morris. Last year Morris was relegated to "other brother" status while sibling Marcus cracked the Jayhawks' starting lineup at the power-forward slot and averaged roughly three more minutes (18.9 to 15.3) and points (7.4 to 4.6) than Markieff did.
Both Morrises showed up this fall looking more physical and athletic, but Markieff's strides were more noticeable on Monday, as he was surprisingly active around the rim. "Nobody really expected much from Markieff before," says Taylor, "but he's been bouncy -- he looks like he's ready to dunk over everybody."
X-FACTOR: Xavier Henry. And not just because Self exclusively calls Henry "X" in practice. There's no question Henry can be a solid scorer as a freshman -- he has a scorer's mentality, and he's already physical enough (at 6-6, 220) to operate around the basket in college.
But will he be the complete player Kansas needs him to be to win a national title? That means stretching defenses by hitting threes (Self said he hopes Henry can shoot at least 36 or 37 percent from long range), playing defense near the level that glue guy Brady Morningstar did last season, and helping out Aldrich on the glass.
Henry is already showing signs of being able to contribute in the latter category; says Aldrich, "One I've noticed in the last two weeks is that [Henry] hits the offense boards hard. Brandon Rush [the three-man on the '08 title team] and Xavier are both strong, but Brandon didn't quite hit the boards like Xavier does, and I think that could really help us."
GLUE GUY: Tyshawn Taylor. "He's still sort of a baby colt who hasn't scratched his potential," Self says of Taylor, who's a rising star after leading the U.S. U19 team to a gold medal this summer, scoring 18 points (to go along with six assists and five steals) against Greece in the title game. But with Morningstar out of the lineup, the Jayhawks need Taylor, their most athletic guard, to be a defensive stopper as well as someone who can create shots for Collins, Henry and Aldrich by slashing into the lane. When your glue guy is a projected top-20 draft pick, you've got a solid lineup.
LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: Mario Little. The former No. 1-rated juco prospect got a vote from Reed as KU's most improved player, after missing the first half of last season with injuries (a stress fracture in his right foot and a broken left hand) and then making occasional contributions in Big 12 play. But there isn't much room on the depth chart for Little to break through; Taylor and Reed are ahead of him at shooting guard, Henry and (likely) Morningstar are ahead of him at the three, and the Morris brothers (and possibly promising freshman Thomas Robinson) are ahead of him at the four.
BOTTOM LINE: A series of public fights with the school's football team in September made everyone wonder whether these Jayhawks were really mature enough to chase a national title. Self's way of putting a positive spin on it -- and there's some logic in this -- is that it might have been a necessary wake-up call. "If we were so immature that we let this stuff become a distraction," he says, "then we weren't disciplined enough to make a run at it. If anything, I think we'll be more disciplined and prepared from this point forward."
Aldrich, one of the few players who wasn't involved in the incidents, said the entire squad was punished with a brutalizing extension of the Jayhawks' standard boot camp that "made us a much closer team." It's better, I guess, that the issues came to the surface in the offseason than in February or March. With cool heads, the loaded Jayhawks look like a good bet to win the national title.