Cole Aldrich crams his 6-foot-11, 245-pound frame into a small elevator at Jayhawker Towers, exits after a short ride and heads down a narrow hallway toward his and Kansas University basketball teammate Tyrel Reed’s apartment.
Aldrich unlocks the door, enters and veers left, his guests’ eyes darting to the right.
As the tall Minnesotan states proudly in “The Aldrich File” in KU’s hoops media guide, the first thing visitors to his campus abode notice are the words “Kansas B-ball” duct taped on the Towers’ signature brick wall.
It’s not exactly Andy Warhol-esque, but not a bad first effort from artist-wannabe Aldrich.
“Some people don’t think it’s the most beautiful work of art. I love it. I think it gives a little ‘zazz to the room,” said the Jayhawks’ bubbly — Sherron Collins calls him “goofy” — sophomore center.
“Tyrel doesn’t quite like it. He says, ‘I don’t know why you even did that, Cole.’
“I tell him, ‘Hey, until you come up with something better than that or put up a picture or something, I guess it’s going to stay.’’’
Hey, it’s not so bad
Actually the duct-taped design — pasted on the wall two summers ago “because I was bored one night,” Aldrich states — is growing on Reed.
“I think it adds something creative to our room,” Reed said, Aldrich screaming, “liar,” after eavesdropping on his roomie’s remark.
“These Towers walls can be pretty blah. Putting that on duct tape tells you something about him. It shows how much he loves this place, how much we both love this place,” Reed added.
It’s understandable that Burlington native Reed, whose dad, Stacy, has worked KU’s basketball camps the past 20 years, would be a lifelong Jayhawk fan.
It’s somewhat unusual Aldrich, who grew up 420 miles away from Lawrence, also was raised a diehard KU supporter.
“One of my AAU coaches, who was my coach since fifth or sixth grade, always took me to (Minnesota) Timberwolves’ games, (University of Minnesota) Gophers’ games,” Aldrich said of family friend Steve Heinen.
“His sister lives in Lawrence. When I was in eighth grade, he said, ‘You want to go to a Kansas game?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ We came here for a game. I fell in love with it here.”
Aldrich and Heinen returned for other games, sometimes spending the night at the home of Heinen’s sister, Lori, and brother-in-law Tim Arnold.
“They are great people. They kind of got me hooked on KU from the very beginning,” said Aldrich, who has remained close with the couple and their two children, taking them Trick or Treating on Halloween, Aldrich’s birthday. “I’ll go over there. It’s a nice little place to get away from college.”
Fans make impression
Arnold doesn’t accept credit for helping KU land Aldrich, who orally committed to KU in November of 2005, right before the start of his junior — yes junior — season at Bloomington Jefferson High.
“I think it was the fans who made it special for Cole. They were real excited about him from the start, asking him for his autograph,” said Arnold, who recalls Aldrich being “at least 6-foot-5,” when they first met in Cole’s eighth-grade year.
“Cole’s really a nice kid. I’ve been impressed with him. He’s down to earth. He’s not let this whole thing get to his head.”
“This whole thing” is his emergence as one of the country’s top big men. He’s had that tag ever since making life miserable on Tyler Hansbrough in KU’s 2008 NCAA semifinal victory over North Carolina last April in San Antonio.
Aldrich — he had eight points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 17 minutes versus UNC — didn’t take much time off after playing sparingly in the title victory over Memphis.
Instead, he prepared for a strenuous, productive offseason.
“I remember after the championship game, we went up to the 22nd floor with the team,” Cole’s dad, Walter, said of a victory party at the team hotel in downtown San Antonio.
“We’re sitting there having snacks in the corner. (KU assistant) Danny Manning came up and his first words were, ‘You are not going to get spoiled. You will be working your butt off in two weeks,’’’ Walter exclaimed. “I said, ‘That’s great. You can bust his butt. I don’t care.’”
Hard work pays off
Cole hit the weights hard — and worked on his post moves and free throw shooting — while attending both sessions of summer school.
His work has paid off early in this, his sophomore season.
Aldrich has averaged 14.4 points off 57.5 percent shooting and hit 21 of 25 free throws for 84 percent. He also has blocked 22 shots and averages 10.1 rebounds per game.
“I think it’s actually pretty cool. Somebody told me the other day it’s just Blake (Griffin, Oklahoma) and me averaging a double-double which is exciting, because I always dreamed last year of finally getting into the game and starting and whatnot,” Aldrich said of averaging a double-double early in the season.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play well and have other guys on the team set me up for easy baskets. I’ve been grabbing rebounds here and there. It’s come along for me and it’s even better that we’re winning. That’s what it all comes down to ... wins and losses.”
Elated with Aldrich’s progress, KU coach Bill Self says he “can be one of the better big guys to play at Kansas in a long time.
“He continues to get better. When he first got here, he wasn’t used to the pace of the game. He couldn’t hedge a ball screen. He has certainly raised everybody’s expectation level of him. His hands, his touch around the rim ... he has natural ability to get the ball in the basket.”
Aldrich also is tough after surviving daily battles in the paint with Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson last season.
“Going against him 1-on-1, he elbows me and my teeth go through my lip,” KU senior center Matt Kleinmann said. “He is a physically dominating player.”
Aldrich — who is efficient around the goal — helps smaller guys like Sherron Collins rack up the assists.
“I love playing with Cole,” junior point guard/shooting guard Collins said. “I would not want to play with any other big man in the country.”
Not just because of his ability.
“Cole is one of the goofiest guys I’ve ever played with. Just his voice ... when we call for a ball screen, he says, ‘Love, love,’’’ Collins said, laughing.
“We have an understanding. As leaders of the team, we have a lot of little talks, especially on the road. When stuff is going bad, as leaders we say we will change it.
“I think he’s approached the leadership role great.”
Is he NBA bound?
Aldrich is developing so rapidly, the basketball world is starting to wonder if he’ll take his game to the next level after this season.
NBAdraft.net — at this early date — has Aldrich listed as the No. 11 overall pick in next June’s draft. Draftexpress.com has Aldrich returning to KU for his junior season.
“Everybody wants to be on the first boat ride, the first wave,” Walter Aldrich says of agents, who have contacted him.
“It’s like college recruiting when the coaches were calling. I’m sure at the end of the year, we (Cole, Walter and Cole’s mom, Kathleen) will sit down with coach Self. We trust him. He’s pretty much a straight, honest guy.
“He’ll look at Kansas basketball which is his job, but we know he’ll be honest with us. We’ll play it by ear. If we could all tell the future, we’d all be rich.”
Cole Aldrich stresses the NBA is definitely not on his mind.
“I’ve got too much stuff to worry about with finals (exams) and how to execute against UMass on Saturday,” Aldrich said. “I don’t worry about that at all. I’ve told my parents numerous times that whenever that time comes, if it’s in two years or after I graduate, my whole philosophy is play well and don’t worry about it and things will take care of itself.
“If I continue to play well, I may have opportunities that come. All I want to do is get me another ring. That was way too much fun. Once April 8 comes and we’re standing at the podium again, all having a great time, I’m just gonna worry about it then, after the season.”
Obviously it will take a lot to get Aldrich to leave Lawrence, which may have even surpassed his hometown of Bloomington, Minn., as his favorite place on earth.
“People are all kind of excited about it (his emergence) back home. All my friends and family are totally taken in by my love for Kansas. Even Tyrel says every once in a while when my parents come in or Conner (Teahan) will say, ‘Cole your parents are hardcore Jayhawk fans. How did that ever start?’
“They just love the place where I go to school and who I play for. It’s what it comes down to. Having the love I have for this school.”
His love of KU may even surpass his other great passion:
“Try getting around him when he’s hungry. If he ever gets ornery, throw him a burger,” Walter Aldrich said. “Pickles and ice cream. He told us once his goal in life was to run an ice cream factory. That’s when he was young.”
“Cole can be a little ornery when he needs some food. Everything above the fridge is his,” roomie Reed stated, pointing to Ritz crackers, Oreo cookies and peanut butter on top of the Towers refrigerator. “I’ve not seen anybody out-eat him, except Sasha.”
“The thing with Cole,” notes Tim Arnold, “he eats often. He’ll have something here and get something an hour or two later. Just keep feeding him.”
Feed him food and the basketball on a consistent basis and he’ll be in nirvana.
Especially in this town.
“It’s been everything I thought it’d be,” Aldrich said of college. “I’m just having a lot of fun. We’ve been winning games since I got here with a great group of guys. I just want to win as many games as I can here.”