Commentary

KU moves past self-inflicted distractions

Originally Published: October 23, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The seven angry stitches run across Tyshawn Taylor's left thumb like a railroad track, zagging across a knuckle that looks as if someone shoved a rock underneath the skin to make the knuckle appear twice its normal size.

Taylor nodded with a smirk when asked whether they were his badges of dishonor.

"Constant reminder," he said.

As Kansas embarks on this 2009-10 season, perhaps the Jayhawks ought to rub those stitches as part of a pregame ritual.

They are, after all, the result of the kind of knuckleheaded behavior that can railroad a team.

The Kansas basketball squad was fortunate to emerge from last month's undermanned fisticuffing against the football team with nothing more than a crack to Taylor's thumb. He has been cleared already for full contact and, aside from a little soreness, has no residual effects from an injury he suffered while participating in the first of two dustups with football players on campus.

[+] EnlargeBill Self and Tyshawn Taylor
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey It's been a rough past month for Bill Self, Tyshawn Taylor and the KU men's basketball program.

Beyond the Taylor injury, the Jayhawks have been roasted by the media, tsk-tsked by a fan base interested in nothing that might detour the team's eyes from the Indy prize and punished by coach Bill Self in a way that Sherron Collins won't discuss except to say, "It's something we don't ever want to have to do again."

It could have been worse -- much worse. The news this past weekend out of Connecticut, where cornerback Jasper Howard was stabbed to death at an on-campus party, is a stark reminder of how quickly words and fists can lead to something deadly.

And it could have been a quick end to a season full of promise.

But if the Jayhawks have done anything smart in the past month, it's that they've suffered their implosion in the preseason. The on-campus sparring -- caused, players and Self insist, by an argument between two people that escalated thanks to a volatile cocktail of ego and testosterone -- happened before practice started and has fizzled thanks to some quick action by Self and football coach Mark Mangino.

Rather than dodging the issue, Self wisely faced it head-on with the media, putting his players out there to explain themselves and take the heat.

Mangino extended the olive branch in the form of Kansas City barbecue, inviting the basketball team for a cleansing breaking of the bread with the football team.

"It's over," Collins said, refuting rumors that these fights were the result of years worth of animosity between the two programs. "We're like brothers. Brothers get into fights. Brothers have arguments, but there's no bad blood between us."

Problem is, another Jayhawk found himself in trouble a little more than a week after the campus brawls. On Oct. 3, junior guard Brady Morningstar was arrested near Lawrence on suspicion of driving under the influence. Court records indicate he had nearly twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system.

Douglas County prosecutors said all charges, which included speeding and failing to keep his car in a single lane, will be dismissed if Morningstar does not get into any further legal problems in the next 12 months.

The Lawrence native has been suspended from playing in any games in the first semester, but what about the rest of the team's players? Where do they go from here?

Perhaps that's the real test: moving forward.

Incidents such as these can be polarizing, causing deep and impossible-to-heal rifts, or can jolt a team into a hyper-speed education.

All signs indicate the Jayhawks have chosen the latter.

There is no attempt to hide what happened or dodge the questions. No one offered excuses, blame or defense of their actions.

They get that they screwed up and, for this particular crew of Jayhawks, Self thinks that, in a twisted way, that lesson could prove invaluable.

By virtue of its talent, Kansas has earned its spot as the preseason No. 1 team, but it does not roll to that position with the ease and savvy of handling the bull's-eye the way North Carolina did a year ago. These guys are new to this. Collins is the lone senior.

KU's 27-8 finish last season was nothing less than stunning a year after it won the national championship and kissed the core of its team goodbye; a "hall pass" season Self called it.

Now the Jayhawks go from unexpected success to expected domination and tote all the baggage that comes with it.

"If there is a silver lining in all of this -- and I've spent a lot of time thinking on this -- you can't win if you don't handle distractions," Self said. "I don't care if it's jealousies, agents, parents, families, whatever. It's going to come, and if you don't handle it, you don't win.

"Well, we've had a major distraction and, for the most part, I'd say we've handled it. Everyone should be more disciplined going forward because of this. We understand it now, or at least we should. We know this probably isn't as big a deal if we're preseason No. 15. We understand what happens when you're preseason No. 1 now."

[+] EnlargeKansas players
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelKU's players lurked behind the fog at last week's Midnight Madness festivities. But the spotlight will be all over them this season.

It's a lesson that often can't be learned without experiencing it. You can tell a kid there are consequences to every action, that with their free education and megastar homage comes the high price of fame, a price ratcheted up in an instant news cycle of message boards, camera phones, YouTube and amateur journalism.

But rare is the kid who doesn't at least touch the fire to find out whether it's true.

No less than Michael Phelps had to be mortified by a photograph with a bong before he understood.

Now the react-first, think-second Jayhawks are paying the price.

"It is hard," said junior Cole Aldrich, who wasn't involved in any of the fights. "We have to remember that we're public figures, not just in Kansas but across the country. It took me awhile to figure that out. I don't think I realized it, and then you go to your first Late Night [KU's version of Midnight Madness] and there are people there from towns in Kansas with 65 people and they know everything about you. It's incredible."

That is not meant to excuse their actions. When people are flying down stairs and angry crowds reportedly are erupting all over campus, there's a problem. When one of the proudest programs in the country has to wipe egg off its face and repolish its image on the eve of what is expected to be an extremely successful season, you have a problem.

"Regardless, you shouldn't do it," Self said. "If your pride and your ego are at the point where you have to react like that, you're not nearly as mature as you think you are. It's silly."

And when there is accompanying instant and humiliating amateur video of basketball players being spirited away from a melee as if they were being rounded up in a paddy wagon, the inexcusable actions come with immediate consequences.

Taylor, who exacerbated the initial fight by posting his musings about it on his Facebook page, grew up in New Jersey. He played for powerhouse St. Anthony's and coach Bob Hurley. He thought he knew how to behave and how to handle public scrutiny.

Then Taylor turned into the poster boy for everything that was stupid and silly about the Jayhawks.

He doesn't have a Facebook page anymore.

"I would put things on there that I never had any intention of being public," he said. "It was more like me talking to my friends, but I didn't think about people who weren't your friends putting stuff out there. It stinks, but I had to make the right choice. Now I just keep my thoughts to myself."

In Kansas' newly tricked-out locker room at renovated Allen Fieldhouse, there is a whiteboard right by the exit. There is a space to count down to the Big 12 tournament, a space to count down to the NCAA tournament and a space to count down to the Final Four.

At the top, right next to Indianapolis' Final Four insignia, it reads:

No Wasted Days!

The Jayhawks already have wasted plenty of days -- and breath.

It's time to move on.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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