Tonight is the last game in Allen Fieldhouse for four special players, all of whom took different routes to get here, but all of whom have made big impacts on the program at Kansas.
The most heavily recruited of the group, Elijah Johnson was the 24th ranked player in the class of 2009, choosing Kansas over Oklahoma and Texas. He has had an up and down four years in Lawrence, starting with transfer rumors early in his career, but he has held steadfastly as a Jayhawk through and through.
Whenever you thought Johnson was something, he turned around and was completely different. This year is a prime example: he struggled mightily through most of the conference season, yet came out and almost singlehandedly won the Iowa State game and backed it up with a double double against West Virginia. Even when he was struggling, Johnson cheered loudly from the bench, and didn't complain about Naadir Tharpe taking playing time away. Rather he spent time counseling and giving him advice.
In his Sophomore year, Johnson filled in for Tyshawn Taylor during his suspension and played very well, yet didn't complain about being the backup once again when Tyshawn returned. I have never spoken to him, so I can't say for sure, but Johnson seems like a thoughtful, introspective young man, yet one who enjoys the hell out of playing for Kansas.
When Travis Releford redshirted, Bill Self said that Releford would be a 1,000 point scorer for his career. He probably won't quite get there (currently at 880) but he has turned himself into one of the most efficient scorers in the country. Releford ranks 5th in the country in eFG this year and 3rd in true shooting percentage, and he has gone from a high 50s% shooter from two to 68%, and has raised his three point percentage and free throw percentage roughly 10 percentage points as well.
And this is without even mentioning the other side of the ball. One could make a small book out of the wing scorers that Releford has shut down over the years. He has done it against jumpshooters and slashers, and he is probably the most underappreicated defender in the nation.
Kevin Young took a more circular route to Kansas. An unranked recruit, he took the only offer he had and went to Loyola Marymount. After a couple years of mediocre numbers, he transferred to Kansas, where most people (understandably) thought he would be glued to the bench.
Instead, the motor that doesn't quit is starting for a team that is a favorite to win its 9th straight conference title, and while he doesn't exactly look smooth out there, a 111.6 offensive rating speaks for itself. He is the best offensive rebounder on the team, and has the highest steal rate, and is shooting 56% from two. He never goes less than 100% and you can bet he leads the team in all sorts of hustle categories.
What Jeff WIthey has done might be one of the most impressive transformations in college basketball. An Arizona transfer, Withey spent his first year and a half at Kansas looking relatively lost. But in the last two years he has become the biggest defensive weapon in college basketball. He led the nation in block percentage last year and ranks 4th this year, in addition to being the biggest reason why opponents take just a fourth of their field goal attempts at the rim and why they are shooting only just over 50% on such attempts. Oh, and he has done it all while cutting his foul rate in half, going from 4 committed per 40 minutes to just 2 per 40.
He has worked on his game offensively as well: once a stone handed stiff who could basically only score on put backs and dump offs, Withey now has a hook shot, an up and under, and a turn around jumper. He's shooting 70% at the rim and 37% on two point jumpers. The latter is the second highest mark on the team. He is predicted to go 27th in Draft Express's latest mock draft, and is the NCAA Tournament record holder for blocks in a tournament. He shutdown Jared Sullinger and Anthony Davis in last year's tournament, and if an NBA team decides they want a 10 year center rather than taking a shot on a guy who could be out of the league in three years, Withey has a good chance to go a lot higher in June. Quite an accomplishment for a guy who couldn't get on the court in his first pair of seasons.
When i was younger, I was a college basketball nut. I watched as many games as I possibly could, and spent hours in my driveway pretending I was Bobby Jackson or Mike Miller or whomever else had a big game on CBS or ESPN that day (yes, even in North Dakota winters).
The problem was, I didn't have a team to root for. I couldn't cheer for Minnesota because of our hockey rivalry, and no other Division 1 teams were close enough. But when I was in fourth grade, a young North Dakotan named Jeff Boschee committed to Kansas, and, for at least the next four years, I had my team.
Fast forward to 2002. Kansas had just lost to Maryland in the Final Four, the last game of Boschee's career. I was in my blue Kansas #13 jersey, and I was crushed. Without intending to, I had become a fan not just of Boschee, but of the Jayhawks. I was hooked for life and, for the month of March at least, my happiness pretty much hinged on whether they won or not.
This love of Kansas basketball led me here to Lawrence in the Fall of 2010 for law school. Now, three years later, I sit just hours from my final home game as a student. In all likelihood it will be my final game here for quite some time. I have seen some heartbreaking moments, such as the loss to Texas the morning after Thomas Robinson's mom died, and some uplifting ones, such as the ovation he got the next game, a win over Kansas State. I have never seen anyone else win a Big 12 title while here, and I got to join countless people celebrating on Mass Street after the win over Ohio State in the Final Four.
I have loved camping for tickets, showing up for lotteries at 6 AM, anything to get myself into that building. It's just a game, and it's just for fun, but I spend my winter weeks counting time not by how long it is until the weekend, but how long it is until the next home game. How long until I get to pull on my Boschee jersey whether it be my blue one or the white one that is actually adorned with BOSCHEE on the back. How long until I get to stand arm in arm with my fellow Jayhawks and sing the alma mater. How long until I get to jump and yell and be a part of the biggest home court advantage in the nation. How long until I get to join in the Rock Chalk chant as the clock winds down.
Tomorrow morning I will wake up and for the first time in three years I will have no home game to look forward to. I don't know the next time I will walk through those doors, and I almost certainly won't get to enjoy the same quality of seats I've had these past three years. So thank you to Bill Self for being the best coach in college basketball, thank you to Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson and the Morri and Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore and countless others for providing me with enough stories to tell that I will probably never finish, and thank you to my girlfriend, my friends and my family (and you readers) for putting up with my obsession with college basketball, and Kansas basketball in particular.
Every Senior night is special, but to me this one is a bit more special. Because it is mine.