KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Those ready to crown Kentucky freshman sensation John Wall as the best rookie in college basketball should reserve judgment for now.
On Saturday at the Sprint Center, Kansas' Xavier Henry interrupted the ongoing Wall lovefest by scoring a career-high 31 points in front of a national audience on ESPN. The top-ranked Jayhawks roughed up La Salle 90-65 on a day when preseason All-American Sherron Collins made 1 of 12 shots. Henry was unstoppable.
Henry may be a freshman who is trying his best to fit in, but he was well aware that Saturday around 1 p.m. would be a good time to come out of his shell.
"I knew it was on ESPN," Henry said. "When you're on TV, you wanna play well."
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Wall, the top point guard in the nation coming out of high school, has had plenty of chances to showcase his skills with the Wildcats facing Stanford, North Carolina, Connecticut and Indiana. Playing in Kentucky coach John Calipari's free-wheeling dribble-drive offense, Wall is being asked to do everything, and he's been allowed to do it with flash. Even LeBron James has joined in on Wallapalooza, saying "he'll be the No. 1 pick in the draft."
And that may be true. But you can't play the wing position in college basketball with much more ease and efficiency than Henry has played it for KU, now 9-0. Unlike Wall, Henry is asked to play without the ball in his hands. In Lawrence, Henry is not the show. But against the Explorers, with Henry sitting at 27 points late in the second half, KU coach Bill Self put him back in the game and told him to "take it to the hole."
"That's all I needed to hear," Henry said.
Henry followed orders, which is apparently all he wants to do. He drove to the basket twice, resulting in two made free throws and a nifty layup and the breaking of the 30-point barrier. A KU player eclipsed that mark just once last season when Collins had 32 against North Dakota State in the NCAA Tournament.
"I just play within what our team does," Henry said. "We have great big men, so it's easy points when we throw it inside. I just pick my spots. When they say take it to the hole, I take it to the hole."
Before Saturday, most of Henry's points had come from open three-pointers and alley-oop dunks. Against La Salle, he put the ball on the floor and showed a consistent ability to get to the basket and draw contact. He said that aspect of his game is often overshadowed by his reputation as a shooter.
"I think we saw today something he's got to do more of, attack the basket," Self said. "I think he's been so conscious to try to do what we want him to do. That's probably taken away from aggressiveness as far as putting the ball down and taking it to the basket."
As for his team, Self did not see enough aggressive play. The Jayhawks were outrebounded 22-17 in the first half and were often late to loose balls. Self questioned KU's toughness early on this season.
"Whenever anybody beats you on 50-50 balls like we got beat, we gotta get a lot tougher," Self said. "We play to the score too much. I don't think we play with the sense of urgency that really good teams do consistently."
Collins had probably the worst offensive game of his career, but he added 6 assists, a couple of which came on back-to-back fast-break layups by Henry. Collins got plenty of help from KU's interior players as Cole Aldrich had 19 points and six rebounds and Markieff Morris had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
For Morris, who hails from Philadelphia and knows many of La Salle's players, the result was a foregone conclusion. Before the game, he told La Salle guard Rodney Green: "It's going to start off close, but eventually we're gonna pull away from ya'll."