Commentary

On the road with the No. 1 Jayhawks

ESPN.com was granted all-access to KU as it visited Philadelphia for a date with Temple

Originally Published: January 5, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- From the middle of the room, Bill Self jumped out of his seat and approached the television. Asking one of his managers to pause the game tape his team was viewing, Self went on to make what he recognized as a "great teaching point."

When Self was finished, Jayhawks guard Tyshawn Taylor had an important question.

"Coach, what kind of shorts you got on?" he asked.

Self just shook his head.

"These are cool shorts. These are cool shorts, workout shorts."

The shorts were a particular shade of orange, burnt orange to be exact, eerily close to the school colors of a certain rival school in Austin, Texas, that just so happens to stand right behind Kansas in the national rankings.

"I've had these shorts forever," Self said in his defense.

Good try, Coach, but no one is buying, at least no one among the Kansas Jayhawks' merry band of merciless teasers, where not even the multimillion-dollar boss man is afforded a break.

If Kansas is feeling the pressure of toting the expectations and demands of the No. 1 ranking as the basketball season steamrolls toward March, the Jayhawks sure aren't showing it.

Administrative assistant Brennan Bechard had the misfortune of a three-second delay before hitting play on a game tape, and it was open season: "You got that big ol' head," someone shouted, "you ought to use it."

Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins arrived in Philadelphia at noon on Saturday. At 1 p.m., he was wondering if "you feel like you're towering over" vertically challenged director of external relations Barry Hinson.

Asked to do his impression of Self, manager Ryan Davis (who also goes by Frankie because assistant coach Kurtis Townsend thought it was his name for a few weeks) switched midconversation to a pitch-perfect rendition of his coach's Oklahoma drawl.

When Jayhawks forward Marcus Morris introduced himself, he smiled and said, "Hi. I'm Malik Rose."

Twice.

Two days around KU reveal a team that travels like rock stars, is greeted like matinee idols but eats and behaves like happy grade-schoolers at sleepover camp.

They eat. They tease. They eat. They sleep. They eat. They win.

It's a pretty uncomplicated recipe for happiness.

And it just might mix together into the ultimate concoction come April in Indianapolis.

"These are good kids," Self said. "You can mess around with them and get on them a little bit. They're a fun group to be around, but when they play, they play hard."

6:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 1

Fresh off their 76-passenger, all-first-class-seat charter plane ride, the Jayhawks arrive at the Philadelphia downtown Marriott. The costumed folks are still strumming their banjoes and marching on dem golden slippers in the city's annual New Year's Day Mummers Parade, so the hotel lobby is busy with revelers coming in from the cold.

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David Albright/ESPN.com The Jayhawks arrived at their Philly hotel rather anonymously in a city wrapped up in Eagles mania.

The Jayhawks are here to play suddenly rising Temple. The Owls were on the Atlantic 10 back burner to start the season but have soared to 19th in the country with upsets of Villanova and Seton Hall.

The on-campus Liacouras Center is sold out for Saturday's game, but inside the Marriott, KU is mostly left alone.

A few fans notice the players walking in, but the majority are autograph hounds, guys more interested in making a profit off a John Hancock than treasuring it.

"There are some places we go, even in the conference, where the line is as long as it is at home," junior guard Brady Morningstar says.

To understand the blasé reception, you have to understand Philadelphia. College basketball is in its soul, but it's not on its mind until January or whenever the Eagles are finished playing. It just so happens that Kansas arrives on the eve of a showdown with the hated Dallas Cowboys, a regular-season finale that will determine the NFC East champion.

For Markieff and Marcus Morris, this is home.

The sophomore twins grew up a few miles from Temple's North Philadelphia campus and are thrilled to be back.

But are they really back home? As is the case for all road games, the Jayhawks are on lockdown for this trip -- "Nope, not even Dunkin' Donuts," junior center Cole Aldrich said. "Can't leave the hotel."

So there will be no strolls through the neighborhood for the Morrises.

"You're here, but you're not here," Marcus said.

Instead, the mountains will come to these Muhammads. At the twins' request, Hinson has ordered postgame cheesesteaks from their favorite spot, and friends and family will visit the boys at the hotel later Friday evening.

They're also planning an in-hotel haircut with Dan, their North Philly barber.

"We just got a cut when we were home at Christmas, but we won't be here for a while," Markieff explained. "It's OK in Lawrence, but he's our boy."

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David Albright/ESPN.comShortly after arriving, the team went through a walk-through in a rather spacious hotel ballroom.

But before family, friends and follicles can be addressed, it's time for a little business.

After checking into their rooms, everyone moseys down to the third-floor conference area. A team meal is on the docket, but first is a quick walk-through in a ballroom big enough for a wedding party of 500.

"What, they couldn't get us a bigger room?" Self quips.

Assistant coach Joe Dooley runs rapid-fire through Temple's offensive sets as some Jayhawks serve as Owls stand-ins on a taped-out key. To make sure no one is snoring, Self throws out pointed questions during the session. For the most part, the players do a pretty good job of getting the answers right, but when they don't, Self pokes fun instead of yells.

The reality is that when the game heats up, the players will forget 65 percent of what Dooley has told them.

"You gotta go on instinct," Marcus Morris says. "You can't be out there worrying about what play they're running. This helps you get an idea of what they might do or what they like to do, but really it's instincts."

After the quick walk-through, it's chow time.

As the players prepare to eat, two of the three managers traveling with the team pull a big-screen TV out of a huge travel case and set it up, sort of like roadies orchestrating the amps.

When I ask innocently about the TV, the table full of coaches erupts in laughter.

"That's Barry's way of saving us $3 million a year," Townsend says. "What? He didn't tell you already how much money he's saving?"

"Oh, I'm so glad you asked about that," Hinson says while trying to hide somewhere between his mashed potatoes and strip steak.

Hinson calls himself the human piñata. And he's right. Everyone takes a whack at him.

A former head coach at Oral Roberts and Missouri State, Hinson was hired two years ago by Self, his old college buddy, to handle the team's travel. Self privately will tell you he's the greatest, so meticulously organized that KU slides and glides through a cross-country trip with ease.

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David Albright/ESPN.com A former Division I head coach, Barry Hinson runs a tight ship as KU's travel coordinator.

But publicly, he and his assistants love nothing more than to ridicule the bejesus out of Hinson for just about anything.

On Saturday morning, for example, Hinson offers up a Kansas weather report, and Dooley can't help himself.

"Not only is he an expert on the economy, he's a meteorologist, too," he says. "I can't believe Barack [Obama] didn't put him on his cabinet yet."

The television is a particular hot topic. Before the first road game last season, Hinson called the hotel to order four TVs, carts and DVDs so the coaches could watch game film in their room and one larger television and DVD for the team's meeting room.

They told him it would cost $13,600.

So Hinson suggested Kansas buy the televisions and have crates made to ship them safely on the chartered flights. "Have you mentioned how much you're saving us to Lew?" Townsend asks. "Maybe a few hundred times?"

10 p.m., Friday, Jan. 1

It's 90 minutes since the Jayhawks ended their team dinner, and now it's time for snack.

"We eat a lot," Self says.

By snack, KU means another meal pulled from a kid's fantasy: Fritos, chips, wings (hot and barbecue), grilled cheese on sourdough bread, fixings for peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches (creamy and crunchy), tomato soup, chicken noodle soup and a freezer stuffed with ice cream sandwiches.

Perhaps nowhere is the line between the Division I haves and have-nots drawn more distinctly than on the road.

I once spent four days with Alcorn State as the Braves rode a bus between Mississippi and Arkansas and back. Breakfast was the free hotel continental version, and one team dinner was a catch-as-you-can at a mall food court.

The coach funded new sneakers, and the players lugged their own gear.

The Jayhawks? Every meal is catered to their whim, every need met before they even think about it.

"We're pretty spoiled," senior guard Sherron Collins says with a smile. "Everything is planned for us."

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David Albright/ESPN.comThe Jayhawks prepare for another meal at the hotel. These guys don't go hungry on the road.

Unless the Jayhawks are on a trip that extends more than one night, they'll eat every meal in the hotel, with the catering staff asked to follow strict instructions set by Hinson: as in no homemade tomato soup, as one fancy hotel tried to slide in.

"There were green things -- vegetables -- floating in it, and nobody ate it," Hinson said. "Now we request Campbell's. And canned green beans."

Like a movie star who requests a specific stock for his dressing rooms, Self also has a goody basket waiting in his room, all prearranged by request from Hinson.

"I know what he wants -- junk food and extra cheese," Hinson said. "He's the only man I know who will go to a barbecue joint and ask for cheese for his sandwich. It's embarrassing."

"I don't eat any of that stuff," Self says. "I don't know why he gets it for me."

(On Saturday morning, sitting on the plate next to Self's breakfast sandwich is a slice of cheese.)

More than meals, however, are catered for the Jayhawks.

On Saturday morning, the managers lay out bundles for each player, their practice gear wrapped up and ready to go. On Saturday afternoon, more bundles -- with uniforms and warm-ups.

The players need only find their proper jersey number.

The managers spend hours packing for road games. In one bag are two sets of uniforms, warm-ups, compression gear, practice gear and extra game shoes for every player. In another, the necessities -- a grab bag of chewing gum, extra Sharpies, the Jayhawks flag that hangs on the team's locker-room door and an aged Kansas rug the team takes everywhere.

"It's a lot of preventative maintenance; you want to basically have two of everything," head manager Joe Balestrieri said. "The players' only responsibility is to pack their underwear, socks and game shoes. And honestly, if they forget that, we probably have extra."

Balestrieri, who dreams of being a college coach, got his job after working Self's camp three years ago. It was an 18-hour-day audition for wannabe managers, and Balestrieri passed the test.

He gets paid through a program set up by the athletics department, although as a lifelong KU fan, he probably would slog through the 50-hour weeks for free. During practice, Balestrieri helps work with the bigs. His job? To defend the pass coming from assistant coach Danny Manning.

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David Albright/ESPN.com Before dispersing to their rooms for the night, the players got in some film work on Temple.

"Some days you're tired and you don't feel like going to work," said Balestrieri, a fifth-year senior. "But then you go to work and it's in Allen Fieldhouse and you're working with Bill Self and Danny Manning. That's not bad."

Self interrupts the food frenzy with a little work. Dooley, who has the Temple scouting job, cues up the film, and the players watch a spliced-up version of the Owls' offense. Each play is highlighted, with clips from different games edited together, and each starter is addressed via film as well.

Afterward the players are sent to their rooms. Self tells them they can order one movie ("No porn," he jokes), but they have to order it before 10:30. The players roll out, grabbing extra food on the way.

"You watch, the Morris twins will leave out of here with like three or four peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches each," Collins said. "They're like little kids."

9 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 2

After a bleary-eyed breakfast during which the coaches already are looking at stats for upcoming opponents Cornell and Tennessee, Kansas dodges the autograph hounds braving the arctic blast by the team bus and heads to Temple for a light shootaround and practice.

"Hello, Igor," Self says to the driver as he pulls away from the curb and heads toward Broad Street.

Self jots down a few notes on a piece of paper, all one-word reminders of what he wants to go over this morning.

The gym is empty save for a handful of workers picking up trash in the upper decks.

The last time the Morris twins stepped on this particular court, they won the Philadelphia Public League title for Prep Charter in 2007. Markieff, when prodded by Self, says he had 23 and 11 that night, while his brother came up with 11 and 11.

A few minutes later, Marcus walks out and Self asks him, expecting a different answer.

"Eleven and 11, I think," Marcus says.

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David Albright/ESPN.com Self mostly keeps things loose at practice, as seen here the morning of the Temple game.

The coach is stunned.

"That's a first," Self says.

For the most part, practice is spirited and energetic. The players seem engaged, and Self praises more than he pans. But when Thomas Robinson chooses not to go hard on a rebound, Self lets out a little venom, cursing and spewing at the freshman he thinks can be a very special player one day.

It's a swift reminder that this is game day and a crucial game for the Jayhawks. Although it's No. 1 in the nation, Kansas has played just one real road game -- at UCLA.

"That was good, but it has absolutely nothing to do with how we're going to play," Self says on the bus. "We don't have an identity yet. They think we do. They think we're going to outscore everyone and then go hard on defense when we're scoring. That goes against everything I believe in. I want us to be tough. I think we'll leave here learning a lot about who we are and how tough we are."

1:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 2

Time to eat again. The players gather for the pregame meal (always four hours before tip). Perkins has arrived from New Orleans, where he was attending the Sugar Bowl.

Self arrives last, which makes those burnt-orange shorts even more noticeable. Perkins comments on them, the assistants, just about everyone.

Self just shakes his head.

They roll the scout tape again, and when it's finished, Self addresses his team.

"This is the first real game we've had," he says. "We were going to be undefeated right now regardless of how we played. But this is an NCAA-type game, where every [possession] is magnified. They don't hold the ball, but they don't give up easy baskets.

"It's going to be fun because this is the first time you've had your manhood challenged."

5:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 2

Game time.

Self told his team to expect maybe 200 people wearing Kansas gear at the arena, hoping some local ties would make things a little less lopsided in Temple's favor. Along with the hometown Morris boys, Taylor grew up in Hoboken, N.J., a short 90-minute drive away, and Robinson is from Washington, D.C., a quick three-hour jaunt down Interstate 95.

Except Self was off by quite a bit. An estimated 2,000 KU fans are scattered throughout the arena, and when the Jayhawks take the court, the cheers from their faithful almost drown out the boos.

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Howard Smith/US PresswireAt times, KU's throng of fans seemed to take over Temple's Liacouras Center on Saturday.

By the end of the game -- an 84-52 rout -- the Jayhawks fans officially have taken over.

It's not every day you hear a Rock Chalk Jayhawk chant on North Broad Street. And in a nod to Philly's Big 5 traditions, Kansas' courtside fans unfurl a rollout: Beware the Phog.

As the players leave the arena, the fans lean over the upper-deck railing to try to touch their rock stars. The Jayhawks oblige with a Liacouras Leap to high-five their faithful.

It's not the challenge Self might have been hoping for, but even he's not so masochistic as to complain.

"If you're leaving out of here not totally content, then there's something wrong," Self tells his team in the locker room. "If you think you should have played more minutes, then tell me who the [heck] I should have taken out. Because everybody played great. So you should leave out of here happy. Has everybody got that? If you ain't happy, you are a selfish what?"

The players happily fill in the blank.

As the team huddles up, Morningstar shouts, "Let's get these cheesesteaks in us."

9:28 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 2

An e-mail arrives from Chris Theisen, Kansas' assistant athletic director for media relations:

"Funny you mention cheesesteaks," he writes. "[The restaurant] shafted us and we are flying back, eating airplane snack food. Barry is not taking it very well."

No doubt.

As Kansas winds up its nonconference schedule and prepares for a tough Big 12 slate, there are no guarantees KU will go undefeated. Playing for a national title isn't a foregone conclusion.

But one thing is certain: the cheesesteak-less flight will give the ever-teasing Jayhawks enough ammunition to last them to the finish line.

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

Dana O'Neil | email

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