The Kansas Jayhawks need Mario Little. On a team whose defining characteristic is its youth, injury-plagued swingman Mario Little will bring some much needed poise and maturity. But as he’s been unable to stay healthy, there’s a lot of talk among Kansas fans regarding whether or not Little should be redshirted, and it’s a decision that has to be made now.
The Michigan State game was the last game of the first half of the season. That means if Little plays one more second for the Jayhawks this year, he’ll be ineligible for a redshirt under the NCAA’s medical hardship rule. So the question remains: should Little be redshirted?
Self brought in Little from Chipola Community College, Marianna, Fla., to help add veteran leadership to a Kansas squad that lost eight players, six of whom played significant minutes, to graduation and the NBA draft last year. Unfortunately, the 6-foot-5 junior has been struck by a rash of injuries, starting with a stress fracture in his leg, which was just beginning to heal when he broke a finger in practice.
So far, Little has played in only three games this season, averaging 1.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists, in only 7.3 minutes per game, all a substantial drop from his numbers last season, where he averaged 15.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists in leading Chipola into the National Junior College Championship Tournament.
As for the redshirt, the Michigan State game made the decision painfully apparent. Regardless of how Little has played so far this year, the Jayhawks need him. Both road games this year have exposed the youth and inexperience of this Kansas team. When faced with hostile environments or staunch defensive pressure, the Jayhawks have looked rattled and unsure of themselves.
In the Syracuse game, at Arizona and at Michigan State, Kansas’s young players, particularly Tyshawn Taylor and the Morris twins, each of whom has been called upon to play significant minutes, have looked intimidated. Even the acknowledged leaders of this team, Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, have at times looked overwhelmed. By keeping Little active, Coach Self adds the poise of an upperclassman, as well as the diverse play of a true swingman.
Though most KU fans haven’t seen enough of him to form an opinion, Coach Self has drawn comparisons between Little and another Jayhawk favorite, Brandon Rush. While I think most Jayhawk fans have been pleasantly surprised by the play of redshirt sophomore Brady Morningstar, playing a two guard in the three spot has caused a number of problems for the team, not least in the rebound category. And this is a category where Little will be able to contribute immediately, even with a bandage on his left hand.
The Jayhawks also benefit from the inside-out game he brings. With the Morris twins not living up to their hype as jump shooters, Coach Self’s squad is in dire need of someone who can bang inside, as well as pull up and hit a jumper. And while Morningstar and Tyrell Reed have done a fine job from behind the arc, neither of them has the size required to hit both the offensive and defensive glass. Freshman Travis Releford has shown glimpses of brilliance, but has been painfully inconsistent, as freshmen are known to do. However, throw a healthy Little into the mix and you’ve got added depth to battle the hiccups of a maturing team.
Of course, as much as many of us would love to see Little in conference play and into March, where we’re going to need him, it really all depends on his health. Is a Little at 80% for the rest of the season better than having him at 100% for the next two years? To me that’s a no-brainer. In the next two years, this year’s freshmen will mature and develop into basketball-savvy young men, under the guidance of Coach Self and his staff. Barring another mass exodus to the NBA, they’ll in turn be able to mentor future freshmen, helping them through the transition from high school to college, both athletically and socially.
As it is, if this Kansas team is going to be in a position to defend the National Championship come March, it needs all of the veteran leadership it can get on the court and Mario Little, even at less than 100%, is going to play a big part in that.