Jersey Jayhawks

Garden Staters move in to new home

Incoming Kansas University freshman basketball players Quintrell Thomas, left, and Tyshawn Taylor, both of New Jersey, kick back in Jayhawker Towers. The two roommates moved in Sunday.

Incoming Kansas University freshman basketball players Quintrell Thomas, left, and Tyshawn Taylor, both of New Jersey, kick back in Jayhawker Towers. The two roommates moved in Sunday.

John Henry/Journal-World Photo A welcome sign for incoming KU freshman basketball player Quintrell Thomas hangs on his dorm room Sunday, June 1, 2008 at the Jayhawker Towers.

John Henry/Journal-World Photo A welcome sign for incoming KU freshman basketball player Tyshawn Taylor hangs on his dorm room Sunday, June 1, 2008 at the Jayhawker Towers.

A reflective Quintrell Thomas arrived at St. Patrick High School bright and early Friday morning, one day before graduation ceremonies in Elizabeth, N.J.

“I’ve been in kind of a down period,” said Thomas, who admits he has been stressed while thinking about leaving his Jersey home – and comfy life with mom, Tommica, and 4-year-old brother, Quian – for the unknown, in this case Kansas University.

“I got to school Friday, was sitting on a bench with my friends, and it was like, ‘Whoa.’

“I’m pretty much entering a new stage of my life.”

Thomas, a promising 6-foot-8, 225-pound power forward, and fellow Jersey native Tyshawn Taylor, a 6-3, 170-pound point guard from St. Anthony High in Jersey City, just hours after graduation caught Sunday-morning flights from Newark International Airport to KCI.

By late Sunday afternoon, both had unpacked a couple of suitcases and were situated as roommates in their Jayhawker Towers apartment.

Ready or not, summer school and the start of their college careers begin Tuesday.

“No, I’m not ready yet. I’m a little nervous, a little scared,” said Taylor, who early Sunday morning gave extra-hard hugs to mom Jeanell, stepdad Jerald and sisters Taquana (15) and Ghariana (6) before boarding his 5 a.m. flight.

“I’m used to getting up every day, going to school and practice. Nothing will ever be the same again. Once I get used to it, I’ll be fine.”

Though it’s easy for media and fans to think of Thomas (14.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Taylor (10.0 ppg, 5.0 apg) only in terms of stats and national rankings (150 and 77 respectively), the two Jayhawks and their mothers this week presented a picture of two wide-eyed 18-year-olds gearing mentally for the biggest challenge of their young lives: starting college in a place 1,124 miles from home, sweet home.

‘I’m a grown man’

“The other day I was talking to my mother. I said, ‘I’m a grown man.’ Now it’s like I am really a grown man,” Taylor said, adding, “my mother prepared me for this.”

Mom Jeanell, who Tyshawn Taylor said makes the best spaghetti and chicken in the world, has had some heart-to-heart discussions with her oldest child around the dinner table.

“I told him, ‘You’ve waited and waited for this.’ We just didn’t think it’d come this fast,” Jeanell said of the opportunity to earn a college degree and play basketball at a powerhouse program like Kansas.

“I said, ‘I know you don’t want to go right now. It’s here and something you have to do. Four years of high school and now four years of college. It’s something you’ve committed to.’

“He doesn’t want to hear it right now,” Jeanell added. “As time goes on, he’ll get used to it. He’s not afraid to leave. He just doesn’t want to leave. He’s 18.

“He’s intelligent. He thinks he’s grown. In all reality, in the back of his mind he still needs his mother, still needs somebody to hold him now and then and talk to him.”

She will make sure she provides support, even if it’s from so far away.

“I will talk to him probably at least twice a day the first six months – at the beginning of the day and end of the day,” Jeanell said. “We have that bond. I’ve got to make sure he’s OK, up in the morning, and I can’t go to sleep until I hear his voice at the end of the night.”

‘We eat great’

Thomas has the same strong motherly influence in Tommica, who he said cooks the best lasagna in the world.

These two Jersey Jayhawks apparently love their Italian food.

“Yes, I can cook,” Tommica said. “That’s why he’s a big, solid statuesque man. We eat great.”

And like the Taylors, they talk a lot while they dine.

“My phone is always on. We’ll continue to talk a lot,” Tommica said. “He’s going to miss coming home and seeing me and his little brother. It’s just the three of us. His brother … Quintrell is like God to him. We’ve discussed getting Webcam so he can see his brother.

“I think we’ll do that.”

Quintrell certainly will miss little Quian.

“I love my young brother. He looks up to me. He’s been around basketball his whole life. My mom has taken him to all my events,” Quintrell said of the person who “wakes me up every day.

“He’ll understand where I’m going. I’ve been telling him.”

Taylor’s outlook

The high school rivals know each other – but not yet very well.

They hope to contribute on the college court as soon as possible.

“I want to get stronger this summer,” said Taylor, who helped St. Anthony to a 32-0 record, Jersey state championship and mythical USA Today national championship.

“I want to work on my jump shot, the whole thing. I want to get in there and do what they recruited me to do.

“I’ll be in the gym a lot, shooting a lot, pushing myself. I want to be the player the (KU) coaches know I am. I want to succeed at the next level. I’ll work hard to try to accomplish that.”

Veteran St. Anthony coach Bob Hurley believes Taylor will contribute sooner rather than later, especially if, as expected, guard Mario Chalmers keeps his name in the NBA Draft.

“Ty is team-oriented, a very good passer. He can penetrate and get the ball to the basket. He’s a great finisher. He jumps over the top of people,” Hurley said.

Perhaps most importantly, Hurley said, Taylor already is a “very good” defender.

“Ty guarded Tyreke Evans,” Hurley said of the ballyhooed 6-5 prep from American Christian High of Aston, Pa. “(He’s) one of the best players in the country who was averaging 33 a game. He scored 17 against us off 21 shots.”

“Ty will be in a place to make a name for himself at the college level. There’s a big upside here,” he added of the player who originally signed with Marquette but asked out of his letter of intent once coach Tom Crean bolted to Indiana.

That was Marquette’s loss and KU’s gain.

“We were very fortunate to land him late because of the coaching change,” KU coach Bill Self said, adding, “I think it (KU) is a great fit. He has a chance to be terrific. He certainly will be young, but we think he’s a terrific prospect.”

The lowdown on Thomas

Thomas – he chose KU over Maryland, Rutgers and Nevada-Las Vegas – is intent on hitting the weights and working out diligently starting today.

“Pretty much everything,” Thomas said of his to-do list this summer. “I’ll work on my ballhandling, decision-making. I’ll shoot a lot of jump shots. I make bad decisions sometimes. I’ll work on being a smarter player.”

St. Pat coach Kevin Boyle said Thomas, who helped the Celtics to a 25-5 record last season, “can compete (on major-college level) now as a rebounder. He is somebody who will block shots.

“His offensive game has improved a lot,” he added of Thomas, who has only been playing basketball since eighth grade. “I see him as a guy who will stick the 17-footer.”

Self sees Thomas as a late-bloomer, much like ex-Jayhawk forward Darnell Jackson, who didn’t start playing basketball until ninth grade.

“His offensive game is one that is expanding,” Self said. “He will give us an element of toughness, and his defensive rebounding will be something we look to early in his career. He’s a great runner, jumper. He really reminds me of Darnell when he first got here.”

Jackson, of course, was a fan favorite at KU partly because fans realized how far he’d come in a short period.

“To say Quintrell walked into a scholarship would be an understatement,” mom Tommica said. “He earned it. He’s been playing ball five years and gone to the top basketball program in the nation. To be going into a situation of that stature : I’m extremely impressed. I feel, ‘Wow.”’

“Wow” is the same word the two Jersey natives certainly will be uttering a lot in coming weeks … when classes seem unbearable, when tornado sirens blare with black thunderheads above, when ex-Jayhawks in the NBA return for pick-up games in steamy Allen Fieldhouse.

“Wow” indeed.

“Change is for the best,” Taylor said. “I know the change that is happening is better for me. I’m excited about it, but nervous, too. Really nervous.”

That’s to be expected, said Self, who is counting on his returning players to make the Jersey duo comfortable.

“I talked with the two of them today. I told ’em, ‘You’ll get homesick. That’s natural. Just be responsible, do your best to make friends,”’ Self said Sunday. “I’m sure our returning players, though we don’t have a lot of them, will do a great job. They need to make sure these guys are comfortable.

“You come to a new place without transportation : you still want to be able to go to Wal-Mart, get a burger, do some different things. Our returning guys have to step up and do that, and I think they’ll be great at that. I know one thing: Everybody’s excited to have these guys here at KU.”