Commentary

Unlikely leader emerges at Kansas

Leadership void on an extremely young team? Collins proves 'em wrong

Originally Published: March 25, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Sherron Collins graciously fielded questions in the Kansas locker room, but the biggest unknown had already, definitively, been answered.

[+] EnlargeSherron Collins
Don McPeak/US PresswireAfter scoring 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting in Sunday's blowout of Dayton, Collins cheered on teammates from the bench.

If there were any nonbelievers left at the Metrodome, anyone who still doubted whether a point guard generously listed at 5-foot-11 could lead a group of tenderfoots to the Sweet 16, they had been converted by Sunday night.

Collins' performance was so conclusive, so complete, so emblematic of a tournament shaped by great guard play. Teammate Cole Aldrich might have made history with a triple-double Sunday against Dayton, but Collins was the best player on the floor in the Jayhawks' first two tournament games, combining for 57 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds.

"He's the pulse of our team," Aldrich said. "We ride him and we go down with him. He's kind of the general of our platoon."

Only Oklahoma's Blake Griffin has scored more points in the tournament (61) than Collins, and no guard has been more valuable to his team, including the usual suspects.

"I wouldn't trade Sherron for any guard in the country," Kansas coach Bill Self said after Collins tallied 25 points and seven rebounds in the Dayton win. "But Jim Boeheim wouldn't trade Jonny Flynn, Ben Howland wouldn't trade Darren Collison, Roy Williams wouldn't trade Ty Lawson.

"There are a lot of good guards out there … but Sherron fits me."

And he fits this Kansas team, which, besides Collins and Aldrich, is a shell of the squad that won the national title last March in San Antonio.

Young teams need to build toughness, and Collins supplies it in bulk. He is built like a boulder at 5-11 and 200 pounds, and plays with an edge sharpened by years of foul-less pickup games and gritty Chicago Public League contests at Crane Technical High School on the city's West Side.

He also is the link to last year's championship team, the only returning player who logged more than 10 minutes a game in 2008-09. And it was Collins who, in the national title game, avoided a foul and made the pass to set up "The Shot," a Mario Chalmers 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime.

[+] EnlargeSherron Collins
Bob Donnan/US PresswireCollins was the one holding the ball at the end of KU's OT win over Memphis in the 2008 national title game.

Collins had been groomed for leadership, but his skeptics surfaced entering the season.

"Nobody thought I could lead a team," Collins said in the KU locker room Sunday. "There were a lot of questions, a lot of doubts."

Collins spoke in an "I showed you" tone, but he understands why people thought that way.

"Because I haven't had to do it," he said. "Last year, we just played. We knew what to do; nobody really had to say anything to anybody. This year, I had to be more vocal, I had to talk and do a lot of things, had a lot of young fellas that people doubted.

"But now, we're groovin', we're rollin.'"

Collins' doubters weren't just in the stands or on media row. Self and his staff weren't pleased when Collins reported to school in August, overweight after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in April.

The extra weight on his frame was a problem, but Collins all too often has had to bear a heavy burden.

His upbringing in Chicago was difficult, with a father in and out of jail and gang life all around him. Collins also had to deal with the death of his infant son in June 2006 and a civil lawsuit filed by a woman who accused him of exposing himself and rubbing against her in an elevator in May 2007. The suit was dismissed in November.

"He didn't do what he was supposed to do in the summer," Jayhawks assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said. "It's hard when you're not doing the right things to tell everybody else how to do it … but he came in and sat down, talked to me and coach Self about the issues he had this summer.

"As coaches," Townsend continued, "we expect these guys to be machines and be in the gym all the time and lifting weights. When you sit back and think about a 20-year-old, 21-year-old kid who's got all these things on his plate that he's got to handle like a man, I've never been through that kind of stuff. It's hard. And you feel for him and say, 'Let's go from now and get yourself ready to go.'"

Collins followed through and got in shape in time for the season. The team belonged to him, and he set out to lead a group that featured only two other multiyear lettermen, walk-ons Matt Kleinmann and Brennan Bechard.

It didn't click right away. Self said Collins put too much pressure on himself. Both Collins and Self put too much heat on the young players.

Sherron Collins
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerCollins is practically a second head coach on a team that is full of underclassmen.

"Especially at the start of the season, I had to be patient the way I talked to them," Collins said. "Last year's team, you could curse them out. But they're younger and coach is already on them enough, so they don't need me getting on them."

At times, he couldn't help it. Collins isn't one for Stuart Smalley speeches. If a player messed up, Collins would let him know.

Freshmen Tyshawn Taylor and Marcus Morris were his top targets.

"I felt like he was talking to me and nobody else, picking on me," Taylor said. "Maybe I took it wrong, how he was trying to do it. He's the leader of the team and everybody knows it, and at early in the season, I didn't quite understand that."

When did things change?

"When we started winning," Taylor said.

After dropping three of seven games in late December and early January, Kansas won eight straight in the Big 12. Collins began to trust his young teammates more, and Kansas won even when he didn't shoot well.

Aldrich blossomed in conference play, and Taylor began to show flashes.

"When I first came in, he just thought of me as a freshman," Taylor said. "And now he respects me. I tell him, 'Sherron, you should curl like this when you come off the screen,' and he says, 'Ty, I think you should guard him like this.' We understand how to talk to each other better."

There still is pressure to produce. Collins has held or shared the team scoring lead in 26 of 34 games. He has scored 22 points or more in six of his past nine games.

And while Aldrich's recent emergence has helped, as Townsend puts it, "As [Collins] goes, that's how the team is going to go."

"Last year, I could take 10 minutes and play terrible, and we'd still win by 30," Collins said. "This year, you've got to play through it. I've been doing a good job of staying consistent. The young fellas, they just keep helping me out. They make me feel better every day."

Collins has carried Kansas farther than anyone thought, but he's not slowing down. The third-seeded Jayhawks are off to Indianapolis for Friday's Midwest Regional semifinal against No. 2 seed Michigan State, a team that embarrassed them Jan. 10 in East Lansing.

Revenge would be nice, but Collins needs no added incentives.

"You've got to be a dog," he said. "You've always got to be hungry. You've got to be hungry and be willing to eat.

"That's my motto. I always say, 'Let's eat.'"

Collins is bringing his appetite to Indy.

Was there ever any doubt?

Adam Rittenberg covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com.