LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) -The night last May when Brandon Rush tore his ACL during a routine practice game, just days after deciding to skip his junior season and enter the NBA draft, his world seemed shattered.
At the same time, Bill Self was wondering how Kansas would remain a national contender in 2007-08 without its two best players. Another of his star juniors-to-be, Julian Wright, also had announced that he was leaving early for the league.
The silver lining in this dark cloud was Rush's agent. He didn't yet have one. So under NCAA rules, the 6-foot-6 All-Big 12 guard was still eligible, and Self happily embraced him back into the fold while Rush prepared for months of patient rehab following surgery on his right knee.
Now the No. 4 Jayhawks are 22-1 going into Saturday's game against Baylor, and Rush is, by all accounts, a better player and probably a better pro prospect than he was a year ago.
His draft status, if he continues to progress, could be even greater than it would have been in 2007, when some people were advising him to stay in school for another year anyway.
``There's no doubt Brandon's injury has been a blessing for the program,'' Self said. ``No doubt at all. But I wouldn't go so far as to say it's been a blessing for Brandon. If he'd never gotten hurt, he'd be in the NBA right now, and that's his ultimate dream. But if he continues to progress, his draft status will be improved, in my opinion.''
If this deep and talented squad gets to the Final Four and Rush signs a lucrative NBA contract a few months later, that torn ACL might turn out to be one of the luckiest breaks he and Kansas ever share.
It would also fulfill a prophecy his mom, Glenda, made right after the surgery on June 1.
``'Blessing in disguise' -that's what my mama said. This might be a blessing in disguise,'' Rush said. ``My mom always knows what she's talking about, especially about basketball.''
The knee is healing as well as Rush's doctor could have hoped. As a player and an individual, the Kansas City, Mo., native seems better off for having another year to season and mature.
``He's more disciplined. He's more responsible,'' Self said. ``He probably approaches the game a little bit differently now.''
Rush agrees.
``I'd have to say overall I'm better,'' he said. ``Passing the ball, making shots, getting to the hole. I feel I'm a better player.''
, Rush does not pack dazzling numbers. For the year, while wearing a big black brace on his right knee, he's averaging 12.3 points and 5.1 rebounds.
However, he seems to be getting closer every game to the form that made him a two-time All-Big 12 guard - in line with the schedule that doctors laid out after his surgery. In his last eight games, his scoring totals have been 19, 16, 13, 11, 17, 15, 15 and 19. He's hitting 50 percent from 3-point range in conference games.
A week ago, in slamming down a dunk in Kansas' 72-59 victory at Colorado, he did something he hadn't done all season.
``That's the first time all year he jumped off one leg,'' said Self. ``That's how he got hurt, jumping off one leg.''
Rush's defense, always a strong suit, is also improved. While scoring 19 points on Monday night in a 90-71 victory over Missouri, he shackled the Tigers' Matt Lawrence to an 0-for-6 outing.
It was a lot different from Nov. 25, when Arizona's Chase Budinger scored 27 on him in a 76-72 overtime win for Kansas.
``He wasn't ready,'' Self said. ``Now he's becoming a lockdown defender we can put on anybody.''
In another sign of progress, Rush hoped to finally shed his knee brace on Saturday.
``February is a big month for me to step up. I stepped up pretty big in January, too,'' Rush said. ``Since conference started, I've been playing pretty well. I practiced without it a couple of times before. We'll see how it feels the next couple of days.''

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