Watching young big men play basketball can be such an exercise in frustration, even at the major-college level. So many tend to grab a rebound and bring it down below their waists, making themselves 6-footers. They fumble the basketball, demoralizing teammates. They like to showcase their guard skills and avoid the combat zone underneath.
Watching Cole Aldrich play so far in this young Kansas University basketball season has been anything but frustrating because he's not doing any of the above.
Aldrich catches what is thrown his way, keeps the ball high and knows that good things happen to big men who stay close to the hoop. He draws a lot of fouls. Defensively, he gets his hands in the way often.
A 6-foot-11, 240-pound freshman from Bloomington, Minn., Aldrich drew several spirited ovations from the sellout crowd Wednesday night in Allen Fieldhouse.
In 17 very active minutes of an 87-46 victory against Northern Arizona, Aldrich contributed seven points, three rebounds, two blocked shots, a steal and an assist.
Darnell Jackson (13 points, eight rebounds) is the team's most improved player from last season, and Aldrich is the most improved since the first day of practice.
Aldrich came into a near-perfect situation for a freshman center. Every day in practice, he goes against stronger, more experienced big men. He gets tutored by Danny Manning, one of the best college big men in history. And he doesn't carry the pressure of needing to be the team's best post player. For now, playing well enough to give the team a reliable fourth big man is all the team needs of him.
"It really helps," Aldrich said of playing against Darrell Arthur, Jackson and Sasha Kaun. "In high school, we had a few big guys in the conference we played against, but it's not every day. In practice, they were just whacking me with the big pad and the towel. Finally, I have big guys I can go up against, and they really improve my game."
Manning led KU to the national title several months before Aldrich was born.
"It's a little before my time, but I've seen some highlights of him playing (in the national title game)," Aldrich said. "Unstoppable. It's a blast having him coach us every day. He'll even step in and play with us once in a while. His knowledge of the game is just so far beyond everybody else's. It's incredible. He knows somebody's going back door, and he'll just give it a little flip back door."
So Manning still has some game left?
"He sure does," Aldrich said.
Based on how he avoids some of the more common big-man flaws, Aldrich brings aptitude and the coordination to execute it.
"I learned that growing up," he said of keeping the ball high. "One of my coaches got mad at me because I used to always put the ball on the ground. When I wasn't playing, he used to have me hold a medicine ball above my head."
It was tough, but he did it because it made him better. Asked to sum up his college basketball experience thus far, Aldrich said: "It's been fun. It's been tough."
He defined the perfect formula for improvement. You have to love what you're doing, and it has to be challenging enough to force you to push yourself.