LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Friendship is a beautiful thing and it might end up being a deciding factor in bringing the NCAA championship back to Kansas.
Sherron Collins, a gritty point guard from a tough Chicago neighborhood, and Cole Aldrich, a towering, shot-blocking center from a suburban high school in Minnesota, seemed to hit it off the first day they became Kansas teammates.
Their closeness deepened last spring when early entry into the NBA beckoned. Because the recession had put his dad out of work, Aldrich was particularly tempted, but intrigued by the prospect of playing together one more year and making a run at a title, the unlikely duo talked it all over.
"I don't remember if he called me first or if I called him," said the 6-foot-11 Aldrich, who is from Bloomington, Minn. "It was like one of us said, 'Well, I'll stay if you'll stay.' And the other one said, 'I'll stay if you'll stay.'"
And so they stayed. Now they're both all-conference stars. Collins is the undisputed team leader as well as its leading scorer and Aldrich averages almost a double-double while providing perhaps the most dominant, forceful low-post defense in the nation.
While the NBA waits, the two buddies are the dual heartbeat for a 32-2 Jayhawks team that goes against Lehigh on Thursday night in Oklahoma City as the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, set up for a run at Kansas' second national championship in three years.
"There's so many things that happen within a team that allow you to become a team," said Kansas coach Bill Self. "If you had a personality conflict, or there's jealousy that exists, one of them doesn't come back. I do think we were fortunate with that."
The two pals also knew that with twins Marcus and Markieff Morris returning along with several other talented athletes, they would have a great chance of closing their college careers as national champions.
"I don't believe Cole and Sherron would have been as excited to come back if they didn't think they could come back and do something special," Self said. "Certainly, they've put themselves in position where that could possibly happen."
Frank Martin, whose Kansas State team lost three times to the Jayhawks this year, gives credit to the playmaking point guard and the shot-blocking center.
"I'm of the opinion that to be a good team, I don't care what sport you play, you better be good down the middle," Martin said.
Attached to Aldrich's frame is the wingspan of a man who stands about 7-foot-1. His team-record 118 blocked shots this season do not begin to tell the whole story of his defensive contributions. There's no way to figure how many shots were missed because he forced the shooter off balance or into a bad angle.
"They've got a center that refuses to allow you to shoot lay-ups and then puts tremendous pressure on the rim," said Martin.
Aldrich is a junior. If he goes pro this year, he'll end his college career without losing a single home game.
Collins, a senior, is already guaranteed to go out as the winningest player in school history. Going into Thursday night's game, the Jayhawks during his four years have won 129 games, four Big 12 championships and a national title.
"Kansas has a point guard who refuses to lose, on top of being a very good player," Martin said.
Off the court and on, the two buddies are always supporting one another. On the day Collins tied the record for most wins by a Kansas player, Aldrich had 17 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks.
"I don't know how to explain it exactly," Collins said. "Me and Cole are just friends. We always have been."
As it turned out, Kansas reaped even one more important benefit from the Collins-Aldrich pact. At the same time they were making their decision to stay, a hotly recruited high school star in Oklahoma City was wrestling with a decision of his own.
"That was huge when Cole and Sherron announced they were coming back," said Xavier Henry, the Jayhawks' second-leading scorer. "They said they had a chance to win a title. So I said I might as well join them."