Rush was top X factor

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Two good Big 12 basketball teams meet today for a 3 p.m. tipoff in a regular-season finale.

If each team could take one player from last year’s team and add it to this year’s roster, two great teams would be squaring off today.

For Texas, adding D.J. Augustin makes these Longhorns great. With Augustin, UT makes a run at the Final Four.

For Kansas, the question of which player from last year’s team elevates the roster most sparks an interesting debate. No quick, easy answer pops to mind.

Kansas coach Bill Self is the first to acknowledge he has a team that needs to overachieve to merit superlatives.

“I think this about this team — and I’m not being remotely negative or positive, this is just how I see it: We’ve got a good team that can play great,” Self said. “I mean, we’ve got good players who can play great. I don’t think that we have a cast of five first-round draft picks that if we’re not our best we can still look pretty good. Last year’s team had that luxury. We could not be our best, but just on raw athletic ability we could still overpower some ballclubs. This year’s team can’t. That’s why we’ve got to be amped up and ready to go each and every night. That’s why the Texas Tech deal is a good lesson for us.”

KU’s margin for error is far smaller than last season’s in part because it relies so heavily on two players, Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Kansas is one of five teams in the Top 25 (Oklahoma, Michigan State, Missouri and Florida State) that do not have at least three scorers averaging in double figures.

Stealing a player from last year’s team who parted before his eligibility was exhausted isn’t an option, but debating which player would help this team the most makes for an enjoyable exercise, one as difficult as identifying the MVP of the national champions.

Averaging 9.9 points, 4.7 assists and 1.9 steals per game for the Miami Heat, Mario Chalmers has no reason to second-guess his decision to bypass his final year of eligibility, but he sure could have helped.

Adding Chalmers, who hit the biggest shot in school history, shores up this team’s perimeter defense and gives it an element it doesn’t have in big supply: steals. He also represents a third consistent double-figures scorer. With Chalmers on the roster, this is a great team, not a good one. But he’s not the pick here.

Darrell Arthur has started 42 of 56 games for the Memphis Grizzlies, but hasn’t had much of an impact yet. Averaging 6.0 points and 4.4 rebounds, Arthur, who dropped 20 and 10 on Memphis in the title game, could have used his junior season to play his way into the lottery and would have been that much more ready for the transition to the NBA with an extra year of instruction from Danny Manning. Put Arthur on this team, and Mario Little is playing small forward. Arthur makes this team great. But he’s not the top pick, either.

Put Brandon Rush, averaging 6.2 points and 2.6 rebounds for the Indiana Pacers, on this year’s team, and it instantly becomes far better defensively with more consistent scoring punch, better rebounding and more speed on the fastbreak. Rush would be having more fun than he is in Indianapolis, but it’s tough to argue with lottery-pick money.