Somebody on the next Kansas University basketball team will win most-improved honors. Along the way, that somebody will get tagged the surprise impact player of the season.
It won’t actually come as much of a surprise, but since he’s a senior and hasn’t proven himself, Mario Little will carry the “surprise” label through much of the early season if, as he’s likely to do, he produces big scoring games.
Some guys just know how to score, or as windbags like to say, “score the basketball.” Little has the knack. Via footwork, dribbling and body control, he knows how to create space, which allows him to concentrate on the target instead of worrying about getting his shot blocked. He’s a matchup nightmare for defenders, too quick for post players, too powerful for smaller athletes.
A leg injury slowed Little during the 2008-2009 season, his first at Kansas after two at Florida junior college powerhouse Chipola, where the teams he played for compiled a 68-5 record. At programs that require as much intense conditioning as KU’s, it’s tough for a player to catch up once he’s fallen behind, particularly a first-year player adjusting to demands to play every defensive possession with purpose and to keep the ball moving on offense.
Even through injury and that first-year adjustment period, Little showed signs of offensive brilliance. In a combined 27 minutes against Texas A&M and Baylor, he scored 27 points. He did it with such a wide array of scoring methods: A baby hook here, a jab-step jumper there, a three-pointer now and then.
Little never earned serious minutes, but he has a lot going for him now that he didn’t then. For one, he’s beginning his third year of making his body stronger, quicker and more flexible under the tutelage of Andrea Hudy, as committed as she is talented. Little has spent enough time around Bill Self to know what he demands and understands shortcuts in the long run equate to a waste of time and do nothing but cost a player playing time.
Little has another thing going for him that he didn’t two years ago. He’s a senior, and seniors usually are driven by a sense of urgency. They see the time running out and want to make the most of it.
It’s not realistic to think Little might lead the Jayhawks in scoring. His vulnerability to mismatches at the defensive end likely will prevent him from amassing the sort of minutes necessary to lead the team in scoring. That honor more likely will fall to either fellow hybrid forward Marcus Morris, a longer, quicker defender than Little, or freshman point guard Josh Selby, ranked the No. 1 recruit in the nation by Rivals.
It’s not preposterous to consider Little a candidate to lead the team in points per minute played. He’s that talented a scorer. As a redshirt, he improved all his scoring tools competing daily in practice against the team ranked No. 1 in the nation much of the season and working on his three-point touch.
Four months away from the Nov. 12 season opener against Longwood, Little seems to have a good shot at cracking the starting lineup, along with big men Marcus and Markieff Morris and guards Selby and Tyshawn Taylor, both of whom will be challenged by senior Tyrel Reed.