Behind fired-up forward Julian Wright, Kansas rebounded from a tough loss to top Florida and again look like a title contender
LATE LAST Friday night at the Renaissance hotel in downtown Las Vegas, the Kansas Jayhawks spent yet another postgame meeting listening to coach Bill Self harangue them for playing poorly and timidly. This time Self was disgusted by his players' desultory performance in a 64--46 win over Ball State, during which they shot just 40% from the field. The players continued to discuss their struggles after the meeting adjourned, and the conversation became so heated that they sat down en masse in the hallway for an impromptu clear-the-air session.
That's when sophomore forward Julian Wright, an affable sort who is usually the team's clown, unleashed a tirade of his own. "Ju went off," junior guard Russell Robinson says. "He definitely got a lot off his chest. It seemed as if it had been building for a while."
Wright impressed upon his teammates that they needed to share the ball more, but mostly he stressed that they had to do a better job of holding each other accountable for their mistakes. Having aired those bottled-up feelings, Wright held nothing back the next night against then No. 1 Florida, leading Kansas to a stirring 82--80 overtime win at Orleans Center and ending the defending national champs' school-record 17-game winning streak. Coming just 10 days after a devastating 78--71 home loss to Oral Roberts, the victory vaulted Kansas to No. 5 in the AP poll and reestablished the Jayhawks as one of the favorites to win the national championship. "It's ridiculous that we can play like this and lay an egg the way we did against Oral Roberts," Self says. "Hopefully this will spearhead us toward becoming more consistent."
Kansas has frustrated its coach by playing up—and down—to its competition. Wright, who against Oral Roberts shot 3 for 10 and had just six points, admitted that a big reason he played so well against the Gators was that he was motivated to guard their marquee cover boy, Final Four Most Outstanding Player Joakim Noah, who scored 17 points but had foul trouble and committed five turnovers. "I knew I had to come out and be aggressive [against Florida]," Wright said. "I'm usually not that type of player, but that's the only way I can handle the intensity of [a game like this]."
Wright was brilliant in the first half last Saturday night, scoring 17 of his career-high 21 points and grabbing four offensive rebounds as the Jayhawks built a 37--31 lead. Although Wright was not as much of a scoring factor in the second half or in overtime, his court vision and versatility enabled Kansas to solve Florida's 2--3 zone. The Gators had used the zone to chip away at KU's lead in the second half until Wright found a way to get open at the foul line and began firing passes to freshman forward Darrell Arthur, who scored six of his 19 points in overtime.
It's fitting that it took a trip to Vegas for the Jayhawks to learn to compete as if they were playing with house money. Now they need to bring that same worry-free approach to every game, whether their opponent is top-ranked or unranked. "Before, when things weren't going right, we'd start to feel the pressure and become afraid," Wright says. "Now we're starting to [believe] that we really are good. We just have to stay aggressive and keep making simple plays, and the score will take care of itself."
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1 The Missouri Valley Conference is even better this season. Missouri State and Wichita State, which beat LSU behind a big second half from Kyle Wilson (right), each upset top 10 teams last week, and the Valley could exceed the four NCAA tourney bids it garnered last year.
2 USC's recruiting has new juice. Days after receiving a letter of intent from prized prospect O.J. Mayo, Trojans coach Tim Floyd got an oral commitment from the top-rated point guard in the class of 2008, Brandon Jennings of Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.
3 It's going to be a long season at Rutgers. After losing 57--44 to Miami (Ohio) last Saturday, the Scarlet Knights fell to 1--4 under first-year coach Fred Hill, including a 71--70 loss at home to Jackson State.