Darnell Jackson started to smile ... and nod ... before a reporter completed the simplest question.
"Are you a better player this year?" the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Kansas University sophomore was asked by one media type, eager to watch Jackson compete for the first time this season -- tonight against Northern Colorado (7 p.m., Allen Fieldhouse).
Jackson has practiced since Oct. 15 but not played in a game because of an NCAA-mandated nine-game suspension for accepting gifts from an Oklahoma City booster.
"Yes, I am," Jackson said. "Yes, I am. I know (there's been improvement). Coach knows, and my teammates know. I am much more aggressive."
Jackson, who coach Bill Self says has improved his scoring ability after a freshman year in which he scored 48 points in 24 games, is expected to immediately garner minutes.
"I see him as being part of the mix. Hopefully, we can find three big guys perform well at the same time," said Self, who likely will let freshman Julian Wright now play more on the perimeter with four inside players available in C.J. Giles, Sasha Kaun, Christian Moody and Jackson.
"Darnell has never been a guy asked to score a lot of points, to become more a scorer as well as knocking and banging people. He's done a good job of that, at least at practice," Self said.
Jackson scraps in the paint daily with guys like Kaun, a rugged 6-11, 246-pounder.
"It's a battle every day -- me, C.J. (Giles), Sasha, sometimes Matt Kleinmann," Jackson said. "They bring it every day. It helps me stay focused. And Julian ... he was taking care of business in there while I was out. I was proud of him for that."
Kaun knows from experience Jackson can play the game.
"He's a big body, athletic, will bang. He'll bring a lot of things to the team," Kaun said. "Like playing tough, getting rebounds and stuff, being a big impact on the floor. It will be exciting to have him back."
"I think having Darnell back will be great for the team," Moody said. "He has a great personality. Playing with him is a lot of fun. He brings that same-type energy as Steve (Vinson, point guard) when he's in there playing. Having that presence in the post will be great for the team, too."
Jackson's mom will be on hand tonight to watch her son play in his debut game of his sophomore season.
"From this I learned to keep a straight head, never come to practice with a bad attitude and take it out on my teammates," Jackson said. "It wasn't my teammates' fault I had to sit out nine games. I'm just one of the guys who wants to help our team win. Everybody has to put forth the effort for us to win."
- Point guards: With everybody talking lately about minutes and lineups, KU soph Kaun was asked about KU's point-guard situation.
"I think Stephen Vinson has been doing a really good job. Coach says every time he's in the game the team plays a lot better ball," Kaun said of the Lawrence senior. "We move the ball a lot better with him in the game. We have a lot of guys with the capability to do it, but for some reason they are not there yet. Hopefully, some guys will get there and be as active moving the ball as Stephen."
- Schedule talk: After beating 2-6 Pepperdine on Monday, KU tonight tackles 0-13 Northern Colorado. After that it's games against New Orleans (2-7) and Yale (5-4). Kaun was asked if he'd have preferred the on-paper easier games to start the season.
"No. When you have a tough schedule, it kind of prepares you for the down the stretch, the Big 12 and everything," Kaun said. "You can see where you stand compared to better teams. You learn how to play. My opinion is, it's better to play against higher-rated teams, better teams, and go from there."