- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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They both grew up in places where it pays to be handy with a snow shovel. They both made their mark playing college basketball between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, a landscape within which there's room to stretch out and fill up a box score. They both were blessed with the kind of pitch-perfect supporting casts that would make David Simon green with envy.
And both possess the kind of basketball charisma that makes every season its own story.
If you enjoyed Kelsey Griffin and Nebraska last season, you might want to hop on I-80 and head a few hundred miles east to see what Kachine Alexander and Iowa get up to this season.
A young group of Hawkeyes turned heads toward the end of last season, winning 12 of its final 16 contests and advancing to the championship game of the Big Ten tournament and the second round of the NCAA tournament. But even after a season-ending 29-point loss against eventual national finalist Stanford halted the coming-out party, the Hawkeyes needn't worry about earning another opportunity to make a favorable first impression this season.
The best inch-for-inch rebounder in the country, the 5-foot-9 Alexander has the second chances covered.
"She's so physically strong, I just enjoy watching her be able to just jump over somebody who is 4 or 5 inches taller than her and go up and grab it," Iowa junior guard Kamille Wahlin said of her teammate. "I think she has an unbelievable ability to jump and go up and get a rebound. She has a kind of a gift that can't be taught; it's natural and she uses her gift to the best of her ability.
"Her type of athleticism is a lot of fun to watch."
When you think about Iowa, you start with Alexander, the senior guard who earned first-team honors on both the Big Ten's all-conference and all-defensive teams last season. And when you think about Alexander, it's difficult not to start with all those rebounds -- 10.4 per game last season to be precise, tied for 22nd in the nation (with a certain former Nebraska star).
Of the 31 players nationally who averaged double-digit rebounds last season, Alexander was the only one listed at shorter than 6 feet tall who played in a BCS conference. That group included plenty of big bodies like Ohio State's Jantel Lavender and former Illinois post Jenna Smith with whom to contend with on a regular basis. In fact, only one other player in that height and conference category -- Texas Tech's 5-11 Ashlee Roberson -- even ranked in the top 100 nationally in rebounds per game.
"I don't know if it really surprises me because when you play against Kash every day in practice, you see how much she works, how much she just wants the ball more than anybody else," Wahlin said of Alexander's board work. "And she's going to outwork you for it; she's going to put her body on the line to get the ball. She has an unbelievable, relentless work ethic and tenacity just to go after it more than anyone else I've ever seen."
Iowa coach Lisa Bluder echoed those sentiments, talking about the heart and passion with which Alexander pursues rebounds. But if you're the sort inclined to cast a skeptical glance at explanations rooted in such intangibles, Alexander has a theory of her own as to what might at least complement the gift of athleticism and the impact of desire in making her a force on the boards. It goes back to the sport she almost chose over basketball, one that doesn't allow a player to stand flat-footed watching a ball's flight before reacting only when it makes impact.
"Volleyball is all about anticipation," Alexander said of her other passion growing up in Minneapolis. "You have to know where the ball is going to hit so you can dig it up -- you need to know where it hits on the spot, kind of like basketball and rebounding. I know where the ball is going to come off of the rim, and if I know before anyone knows, I can get there before they do.
"Everybody always said I had a nose for the rim, and I never really understood what that meant in high school. But now I kind of understand it because I know exactly which way the ball is going to come off the rim."
More and more often, she's also primarily responsible for making sure the ball doesn't come off the rim, but instead slides through the net for an Iowa team that ranked behind only Ohio State in scoring during conference play last season. A lockdown defender and rebounding machine ever since she arrived in Iowa City -- even as a freshman she averaged 9.5 rebounds per 40 minutes -- she emerged first as an off-the-dribble threat and later as an all-around scorer.
As a freshman, she had more rebounds than field goal attempts in the 18 games she played before being forced to sit out the second half of the season because of academics. But by the next season, off-court work in order, she averaged 10 points per game, and perhaps most impressively for a player fourth on her own team in scoring, led the Big Ten in free throws made. That's the sign of a player with both the skill and the desire to score.
"Her sophomore season, I think she got it," Bluder said. "She understood what she had to do on and off the court, but she also understood how it could be taken away from you pretty quickly and you better enjoy it while you're out there."
A lot of players would have been satisfied to make a career out of an ability to get to the line almost at will. She made 93 field goals and 131 free throws as a sophomore, a ratio of 1.4 made free throws for every made field goal. Of the 25 Big Ten players who averaged at least 10 points per game that season, the other 24 all fell between 0.3 and 0.8 for the same ratio. Yet even before that sophomore season, Alexander made improving her outside shot a priority, "going back to kindergarten," as she put it, to relearn mechanics and train muscle memory.
As a sophomore, she attempted just 12 3-pointers in 32 games. Last season, she hit 34 percent of her 53 attempts, forcing defenses to contend with one more shooter on a team with plenty.
Now the challenge for the competitor is not to lean too heavily on her newfound range.
"I've become a better shooter now, but I found myself kind of forgetting to think drive first and almost wanting to prove myself shootingwise," Alexander said of her summer. "[Rajon] Rondo's my favorite player in the NBA, and he reminds me so much of myself because he doesn't shoot the ball -- it's not the first thing he looks for. People sag off of him, but yet he still gets to the rim. But if time calls for it he always comes up with the big shots, as far as outside shooting."
Despite having to stop and start her season because of a stress fracture in her leg that cost her seven games, Alexander led the Hawkeyes in points per game last season. And in the end, it wasn't Maya Moore, Danielle Robinson or Amber Harris who turned in the most prolific scoring day against Stanford in last season's NCAA tournament. It was Alexander, who hit 11 of 16 shots, including a pair of 3-pointers, en route to 27 points in a second-round loss on the road.
It was a star turn for a player who made her mark doing decidedly unglamorous work.
"She's exceeded our expectations," Bluder said. "When you sign somebody, you always have great hopes for those players, but we watched Kachine and we loved the effort she put out in high school and with her club team. We loved her defense -- that's where she kind of hung her hat then. Now she's become more of a well-rounded player and understands how to shoot the ball a lot better and offensively, how to read the game a lot better.
"But I think in high school, she just didn't have any of those concepts, and you never know if a kid is going to get those or not. You hope they are -- we believe in ourselves as coaches that we can help them with that -- but I would certainly say she's had to have exceeded our expectations."
After an unbeaten run through the regular season, Nebraska and Griffin fell just short of the final stage last spring. It has been five full seasons since the Big Ten sent a team to the Final Four, but as the event returns to Indianapolis, where Michigan State made the final weekend in 2005, Iowa might just have the right mix to give its senior star that spotlight.
For Alexander, there won't be any second chance at writing that kind of ending. And that's all the more reason not to take your eyes off arguably the best pound-for-pound player in the nation.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Can Kachine Alexander, the best pound-for-pound player in the country, help carry Iowa to Indianapolis this spring?