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March 14, 2008

Quest to three-peat begins with Nebraska

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No. 5 ranked KU's (28-3; 13-3) quest to win a third straight Big 12 Tournament Championship begins on Friday night. The Jayhawks, who have won four straight games by an average of 25 points per contest, will face Nebraska (19-11; 8-9) for the third time this season. There is absolutely no question that Kansas has plenty to play for, as Bill Self's squad is still in the running for a No. 1 seed.

During KU's current four game winning streak, they've been one of the most impressive teams in all of college basketball. The Jayhawks won each game by an average of 25 points per contest, including two impressive wins at Iowa State and Texas A&M.

A big key for Self's squad down the stretch has been the play of sophomore guard Sherron Collins. Having battled a number of injuries during the season, Collins is finally healthy, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

Throughout the Jayhawks impressive winning streak, Collins has been a sparkplug off the bench. He's currently averaging 12.7 points per game and has dished out 15 assists.

"He's such an important part of our team," said Self. "I didn't realize until this morning that he was the co-Big 12 Player of the Week, but you stop and look at how he played the last three games, he's been pretty good. He changes the pace of the game and he's an explosive offensive player, but he also brings an element of toughness and leadership. He's got a presence about him on the court. I'd say we're about as whole as we've been all year, no question.

"We're still nicked up like everybody is, but it's certainly nice to have him at full strength," he added. "I think it's the best he's looked since he hurt his foot against UMKC. He got off to a pretty good start those first two games and then he went down and he has not been himself since then. You look at him the other day and he just had a pit bull-type performance and that's what we've been missing because he just hasn't felt good enough to do that."

Kansas, without question, is putting everything together at the perfect time. The Jayhawks went through a funk in February and didn't look like a team that was ready to compete for a National Championship.

Self's squad dropped road games to Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma State. At times, Kansas appeared to be out of sync.

The Jayhawks did take care of business at home, as they defeated Missouri, Baylor and Colorado, but something was clearly missing, as the swaager they displed during their 20-0 start was gone.

Since losing to Oklahoma State in Stillwater back on February 23, Kansas has been clicking on all cylinders. Should the Jayhawks take care of business this weekend and win their third straight Big 12 Tournament Championship, they could very well be awarded with a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.

"I would say yes. We have a chance, but some things probably need to happen to make it a reality," said Self. "One being we'd have to win the tournament and two, we'd probably need somebody else to not perform as well this week. Even if we're not that (a No. 1 seed), and I'm not putting any emphasis on it, we just want to gather as much momentum as we can going into next week."

"Well, I think (North) Carolina is. From my perspective, how could you not put Memphis as a No. 1? Tennessee has had the best RPI all year and UCLA had a remarkable year," he added. "You could make a strong case for all of those. But things happen- a first or second round exit, other teams get hot. That's what happened to us last year. I don't think we were a No. 1 seed last year going into the Big 12 tournament and we played our way to that. I would say (North) Carolina is a lock and everybody else still has some work to do."

The first step in possibly earning a No. 1 seed begins on Friday night at 6:00. For the third time this season, Kansas and Nebraska will face-off on the hardwood. When the two teams first met in Lincoln back on January 12, the Jayhawks completely dominated the Cornhuskers from start-to-finish.

In defeating Nebraska, 79-58, four players, Brandon Rush (19), Mario Chalmers (14), Russell Robinson (10) and Sasha Kaun (10) scored in double-figures for the Jayhawks.

When the two teams met back up in Lawrence on January 26, the outcome was the same. Darrell Arthur (18), Rush (17), Darnell Jackson (13) and Collins (10) scored in double-figures, as KU cruised past NU, 84-49.

Nebraska earned the right to play Kansas for a third time by defeating Missouri in the opening rebound of the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday night.

According to guard Mario Chalmers, a big key for Kansas is to remain focused and come ready to play each and every game.

"We have to be focused, prepared to face our opponents and come ready to play," said Chalmers. "We have to get ready for both (potential opponents; No. 7 Nebraska and No.10 Missouri) but at the same time we also have to worry about ourselves and make sure we stay focused and ready to play.

"We know both teams pretty well," he added. "We can't worry about the two wins we have on each of the teams already; we just have to prepare ourselves to play both again."

After winning the two previous conference championships on the road, Chalmers and his teammates would love nothing more than to win a third straight conference championship in font of the hometown fans.

"We are out to prove that we are the best team in the Big 12," he said. "This week is going to be a big week for us and we have to continue to play Kansas basketball. We love the Sprint Center; it's like a home-away-from-home. I think it will be good for us to get back there and play again."


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