Looking at next year's incoming class for Kansas University's defending national champion basketball team, most everyone instantly thinks of Marcus and Markieff Morris (the twins), Travis Releford (the local kid) and Tyrone Appleton (the former juco national champion).
Actually, with the loss of Brandon Rush, overlooked Mario Little could be the most important addition to the Jayhawks.
A transfer from Chipola (Fla.) Community College, Little has the same frame as Rush, the exact frame. Rush is listed at 6-foot-6, 210 pounds. In the program from the NJCAA Div. I National Men's Basketball Championship, Little was listed at 6-6, 210 pounds.
While covering Little at the NJCAA tournament March 18-22 in Hutchinson, I found it easy to pick up his similarities to Rush in style of play as well. Once you see Little in person, you'll instinctively compare the defensive prowess of the two. The forward out of Chicago's Washington High forced turnovers, took charges, blocked or altered shots - when players actually attempted to shoot against him - and crashed the boards relentlessly, averaging 5.5 rebounds in the four games of the NJCAA.
In Chipola's first game in Hutchinson against Seward County, Little was forced to guard Darko Cohadarevic, a 6-9 forward who signed with Texas Tech. While Little guarded him, Cohadarevic was just 1-for-5, with two points and two turnovers. When Cohadarevic didn't have Little in his face, he was 5-of-10 from the field - 3-for-6 behind the arc - and finished with 22 points.
Throughout the tournament, that was Little's role on defense: Stop the hot hand, exactly what was demanded of Rush.
Offensively, Little is much like Rush was earlier in the year when KU coach Bill Self challenged Rush to become more aggressive. Little has a nice-looking shot, but doesn't take as many attempts as his talent merits. Chipola's decision to use him mainly as a post player partly explained that. Little said Self plans to use him on the perimeter. In the second half of his last game at the NJCAA tournament, the KU signee scored 18 of his game-high 21 points, pulled down five rebounds, collected four of his six assists and had four steals - all while playing the perimeter.
But with the good comes the bad. There were occasions on offense where he showed flashes of Darrell Arthur, too often shooting fadeaway jumpers. He made one of six fadeaway attempts.
Little showed one other trait similar to Arthur during his time in Hutchinson: foul trouble. In each of his first three games, Little was whistled for four fouls and picked up three fouls in the first half of the fourth. The only half of play that Little was not whistled for a foul was his explosive second half of his final game with Chipola.
Now, for those worried about the loss of intangibles the senior class brought to this year's team, such as intensity, Little's actions following an interview gave cause for hope.
After turning the corner at the end of the walkway, the future Jayhawk poked his head back around to yell out the rest of his response about traits he shares with current KU players: "And I've got the toughness of Russell Robinson! ... Make sure you put that down!"