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
The tooth was chipped in a collision with either Kansas State's
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
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,
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
Aldrich first came to KU's campus as a ninth grader. His AAU coach,
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
"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
I asked him to look up where he's listed on
But most teams
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."
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."
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
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.
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.