- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Kansas forward Brandon Rush arrived at Allen Fieldhouse on Friday night riding in a stretch limo and wearing a black tuxedo.
Rush and the rest of the Jayhawks were given a red-carpet entrance for "Late Night In the Phog," the school's annual celebration to the start of the college basketball season.
How and when Rush arrives later this season might determine whether the highly regarded Jayhawks are celebrating again at the Final Four in April.
Last year was great, but it ended on a sour note. The only thing last year's team didn't have was seniors. A team is only as good as its seniors allow it to be. This year, we've got five studs. We've got to get the big prize. We've got to cut down the nets in April.
Rush, a 6-foot-6 junior from Kansas City, hasn't yet fully recovered from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. Rush injured the knee while playing in a pick-up game on May 23, a week before he was supposed to perform in the NBA predraft camp in Orlando.
Rush, the Jayhawks' leading scorer the last two seasons, underwent surgery on his knee June 1. Doctors initially diagnosed his recovery at six months. Since Rush hadn't yet signed with an agent, he was allowed to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return to Kansas for his junior season.
Rush's recovery is the Jayhawks' most pressing concern heading into a season in which they are an overwhelming choice to win the Big 12 Conference for the fourth-straight season. With four of five starters returning, Kansas is among the teams expected to compete for a spot in the Final Four, where the Jayhawks haven't been since 2003.
"It's coming along," Rush said, after watching his teammates scrimmage Friday night. "It won't be too long before I'm playing with contact again."
When Rush returns, Kansas will have back all but one of 14 players from a team that finished 33-5 and lost to UCLA in the NCAA Tournament's regional final during the 2006-07 season. Sophomore Julian Wright turned pro and was the 13th pick in the NBA draft by the New Orleans Hornets.
"Last year was great, but it ended on a sour note," Kansas coach Bill Self told a crowd of about 15,000 fans, which gathered inside Allen Fieldhouse for more than three hours of festivities, of which only 20 minutes actually involved the Jayhawks playing basketball. "The only thing last year's team didn't have was seniors. A team is only as good as its seniors allow it to be. This year, we've got five studs. We've got to get the big prize. We've got to cut down the nets in April."
Two of the seniors -- guard Russell Robinson and center Sasha Kaun -- will be back in the starting lineup. So will junior Mario Chalmers and Rush, an All-Big 12 selection, who led the Jayhawks with 13.8 points and 75 3-pointers last season.
Rush has slowly worked his way back into shape, even participating in the team's two-week boot camp, in which he completed about 90 percent of conditioning drills.
Self expects Rush to be ready by Dec. 1, meaning he would miss at least the team's two exhibition games and first six games, including a Nov. 25 home contest against Arizona. But Self also speculated Rush could return a few weeks sooner or a few weeks later.
The Jayhawks open Big 12 play on Jan. 12 at Nebraska.
Self said Rush won't be the same explosive player as he was for a while.
"I don't think initially he will be," Self said. "He can't be, according to what the doctors tell me. It's going to take a year for him to be exactly where he was before he tore it."
But Self also believes the injury might end up making Rush a better player than he was before.
"I think it's a great opportunity for him to become a better ball player," Self said. "He can concentrate on skills and not rely on athleticism as much. He can improve his ball-handling, shooting and ability to read screens. Then, when the hop comes back, he'll be a more complete player."
Rush isn't the only Jayhawk trying to rush back. Sophomore Darrell Arthur, who is expected to replace Wright in the starting lineup and be a more consistent offensive threat in the paint, was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left leg on July 6. The injury was discovered while Arthur was playing with the U.S. Under-19 team.
Arthur, a 6-9 native of Dallas, averaged 9.8 points and 4.7 rebounds and was fourth in the Big 12 with 56 blocked shots as a freshman. But he showed no ill effects of the stress fracture during the team's 20-minute scrimmage.
About the only thing fans saw Rush do Friday night was dance near mid-court. Each of Kansas' players participated in a "Singing Bee" skit before the team scrimmaged more than 3 1/2 hours after the arena's doors opened. Rush and Chalmers sang "The Good Life," and Russell ended the talent show with a rendition of "New York, New York."
The Jayhawks' entrance into the arena even included a red-carpet reporter and cheering fans as they exited a line of luxury cars.
"Marketing did that," Self said. "It was not us coming up with that. I think the kids had fun with it, though."
Much of the program seemed to be tailored to recruits. There was a 10-minute video montage of former Jayhawks now playing in the NBA. Later, there was even longer video devoted to Kansas' tradition, from Dr. James Naismith (the father of basketball) to Larry Brown to Danny Manning to Roy Williams.
And as luck would have it, three of the country's top recruits just happened to be sitting behind one of the Jayhawks' benches. Shooting guard Travis Releford of Shawnee Mission, Kan., was on campus. He already has verbally committed to play at Kansas next year, after spurning offers from Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, among other programs.
Two uncommitted players -- identical twins Marcus and Markieff Morris of suburban Philadelphia -- also were in attendance. The brothers are expected to choose from among Kansas, St. John's and Villanova in the near future.
When the three players walked through a tunnel to courtside, they received a standing ovation from much of the crowd. One fan even shouted: "Choose Kansas!"
For the first time in maybe, well, forever, Kansas' football team was even in the spotlight Friday night. Former Jayhawks and Washington Redskins running back John Riggins, who will be added to the Memorial Stadium Ring of Honor this weekend, was recognized early in the event.
Then football coach Mark Mangino addressed the crowd and received an ovation like he's rarely received here before. The No. 20 Jayhawks are 5-0 going into Saturday's game against Baylor.
"I want you to have a good time tonight and cheer a lot, but save a little bit for tomorrow morning at Memorial Stadium," Mangino told the crowd.
Self also applauded the football team's fast start.
"The best thing that can happen to our school is for the football team to be good," Self said. "But isn't it about time for basketball season to get started?"
The season officially got started when Arthur sank a baseline jumper to score the first points in the scrimmage.
And the Jayhawks know where they want it to end.
"We want to go all the way this year," guard Sherron Collins said. "We have a bad taste in our mouth, so we're hungry. We know what it takes to get there."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.