Kansas veterans can accomplish rare feat

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Thousands of players have come through college basketball in the last 18 years.

Only 15 have two national titles. Since 1992 only three head coaches have won two national championships -- North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Florida’s Billy Donovan and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun.

The list of coaches could grow by one if Kansas’ Bill Self were to win a second title next month, while the collection of players could grow by three if the top-ranked Jayhawks, one of three likely favorites, were to win the championship April 6 in Indianapolis. Coaches have more opportunities. Players don’t.

We spend so much time talking about coaches winning a second national title and how rare that is still today. But what about the unique story of how difficult it is for the players to win twice in this era of early departures to the NBA draft?

It’s almost impossible, or rather implausible.

But it could happen for KU's Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Brady Morningstar, along with Tyrel Reed, Chase Buford and Conner Teahan.

Among that group, Collins played the most significant role on the 2008 national title team. Aldrich emerged as a threat in the Final Four off the bench inside. Reed averaged around six minutes a game. Morningstar redshirted that season, but was still a part of the roster.

“We can finally talk about a national championship run now,’’ said Collins after Kansas’ 72-64 Big 12 tournament title victory over Kansas State at the Sprint Center Saturday, completing the sweep of the Wildcats in three games, and more importantly a rare double-dip with a regular-season and conference tournament title.

“This is the reason me and Cole came back to school,’’ said Collins, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player after scoring 12 points, dishing out seven assists to just two turnovers in 36 minutes. “To be mentioned with some of those greats, some of those great teams, that’s special if we can go down in history like that.’’

Kentucky won national titles in 1996 and ’98 under two different coaches. The first one came under Rick Pitino, the second led by Tubby Smith. There were five holdovers on both teams that won two championships – Cameron Mills, Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, Nazr Mohammed and Allen Edwards.

Florida pulled off the first consecutive national championships since Duke in 1991 and ’92 when a collection of recruits calling themselves the ‘04s stayed together instead of opting for the NBA and won championships in 2006 and ’07. The seven scholarship players and three walk-ons who can claim two national championships were: Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Walter Hodge and Chris Richard. The three walk-ons that can boast for the rest of their lives that they have two rings as well are Jack Berry, Brett Swanson and Garrett Tyler.

It may seem like a high number of players in the past 18 years because of Florida’s consecutive titles. But it’s not. Just think of how many players compete in Division I every season. Now consider how rare it is for any of them to be in the Final Four, let alone win a national title. Then take it a step further and ponder how difficult it would be to do it twice.

That’s the kind of history this trio of Kansas players is on the verge of completing if the Jayhawks can win six games.

“In this era of one-and-done, it’s hard to do it,’’ Collins said. “It’s not going to be easy, but it would be special.’’

The Jayhawks had momentum in 2008 and were one of the four favorites with UCLA, North Carolina and Memphis in an all-chalk Final Four. But there was perhaps more experience on that squad, especially upfront.

“We were more mature,’’ Collins said. “We had a lot of guys who knew what to do. We’ll still have to talk to some of these guys and help them understand to get them all ready.’’

Xavier Henry is a freshman entering his first NCAA tournament. This is the first time that Tyshawn Taylor, Tyrel Reed and Marcus and Markieff Morris will be in the role of major contributors.

“I don’t think we’re as defensively sound, or as consistently defensively sound as that team in 2008,’’ Collins said. “We do it in spurts. If you’re going to win, it’s going to be because of our defense. You’ve got to be a defensive team in the tournament and make teams play better than you do.’’

Clearly Morningstar and Aldrich have a different approach versus 2008. It’s easy for Morningstar since he wasn’t even playing then, while Aldrich was simply a role player asked to hustle, board and run the floor.

“It’s pretty cool to know that you could be a part of something like this, not just one championship but a chance to win two,’’ Morningstar said. “There aren’t a lot of easy games, even in the first and second round. It’s about not having distractions. We had a big shot guy then (in Mario Chalmers), but we’ve got one right here in Sherron. We’ve got another one in Cole at the four and Marcus at the three. We’ve got the different pieces to do what we want to do.’’

As iconic as Tyler Hansbrough was at North Carolina during his career, he still only had one title after Kansas crushed the Tar Heels in the 2008 national semifinal before Hansbrough returned to attempt to win one in 2009. Hansbrough was fortunate when Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green opted to withdraw from the NBA draft. Carolina was experienced, talented and driven to win in 2009 -- and did.

The Jayhawks had similar luck when Henry got out of his national letter to join Kansas once then-Memphis coach John Calipari split for Kentucky. Avoiding any injuries has been a blessing. Now KU stands at 32-2 and the Jayhawks have gone through most of the season as the favorite, destined to be in Oklahoma City for the first two rounds and likely St. Louis for the next two en route to Indianapolis as possibly the No. 1 overall seed.

“The reason Sherron and I came back was because we knew we had a great group of guys and had a chance of cutting down the nets in April,’’ Aldrich said of a possible second title. “It sounds easier on paper then to go through it. But if we can, it would be really special -- really special -- to be a part of such a rich and historic tradition at Kansas.’’