LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) -Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich are clearly the focal point for the Kansas Jayhawks.
They're the team's leaders, the two best scorers, the only ones who had an impact on last year's national championship team.
Gradually, though, the newcomers - seven in all - have started playing. There's still some kinks to work out, but Kansas has become more well-rounded as the season has progressed, a team rather than two star players surrounded by raw talent.
And it couldn't have come at a better time: After playing No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing, the Jayhawks will face rival Kansas State on Tuesday to open the Big 12 season.
``We're ramping it,'' Collins said. ``It was a good nonconference schedule for us. There were some tough teams and it has helped us get better.''
Kansas had one of the best recruiting classes in the country last year and needed it after losing five players to the NBA. The Jayhawks played well in spurts early in the season, getting by on talent in games against Missouri-Kansas City, Florida Gulf Coast and Coppin State.
s is expected with such a young team, there have been bad spurts as well.
One came in the second half against Syracuse, when the young Jayhawks couldn't handle the Orange's pressure defense, leading to an overtime loss. Against Massachusetts, Kansas played so poorly coach Bill Self said he would have been disappointed even with a win.
Kansas also blew a nine-point lead in the second half of a loss to Arizona and couldn't put away Siena despite taking a 20-point lead in the first 10 minutes.
Even with the inconsistencies, the Jayhawks have been in and out of the Top 25 and enter Saturday's game 11-3.
``The team is about where I thought it'd be: Up and down, go stale offensively, wasted possessions offensively from time to time,'' Self said. ``But I think we're gaining on it. We're getting better at it.''
The key for Kansas is toughness, the foundation of Self's coaching philosophy.
That means going to the basket hard, grabbing rebounds with two hands, fighting over screens, battling for good post position - in games and practice. The Jayhawks have gotten tougher as the season has progressed, though there still have been lapses.
One came in Tuesday's game against Siena. Kansas won 91-84, but nearly let an early 25-1 run go to waste with poor perimeter defense.
he has to do.''
Junior guard Mario Little could certainly help, but the Jayhawks are running out of time.
One of the best junior college players in the country last season and the preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year, Little has played just two games because of injuries. He started the year with a stress fracture in his leg, then had to delay his comeback because of a broken hand.
Powerfully built at 6-foot-5, Little returned to practice last week, but hasn't regained his explosiveness nor fully tested his leg. Kansas will have to decide after Saturday's game whether to have him keep playing or apply for a medical hardship.
``By Feb. 1, he needs to be a key, key player on this team,'' Self said. ``If he was able to do that, then I would say the team needs him. If he's not, then I would say shut him down.''
The rest of the Jayhawks have made steady progress.
Talented twin forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris have increased their endurance and become more aggressive. They're also beginning to realize their impact on the team, how running the floor or posting up hard can create opportunities even if they don't get the ball.
Brady Morningstar, a redshirt last season, has been Kansas' most consistent perimeter defender, and Tyrel Reed, another sophomore guard, has hit big shots at key moments.
with defense and by sneaking in for offensive rebounds.
Freshman Tyshawn Taylor has been solid running the point and, at times, shown the ability to be a lock-down defender. The problem for Taylor - and the rest of the young players - is learning how to do it consistently, to play hard against every opponent, every possession.
``His focus should be on, 'I'm going to guard, I'm going to run the team, I'm going to take good shots every possession,''' Self said. ``For whatever reason I don't think his focus has been where it should be every game.''
That hasn't been a problem for Collins and Aldrich.
``Last two years, we've been spoiled because everybody thought if it's not my night, somebody else will do it,'' Self said. ``We don't have a luxury of those guys having off nights and us having a great chance against a really good team. It's new for Sherron and it's new for Cole, but they can handle it.''

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