LAWRENCE, Kan. – Conner Teahan is living the dream.
He grew up a mere 30 minutes from the University of Kansas in Leewood, KS, and, like most people that grow up a mere 30 minutes from Lawrence, he’s been a lifelong, diehard Jayhawks fan.
“There aren’t going to be many bigger KU fans than I was. I’d be crying when they lost,” Teahan said with a laugh after scoring five points in a 64-54 win over Texas A&M at Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Monday night. “Whenever I thought about what I wanted to do in college, the number one priority was play basketball at KU. That’s all I wanted to do and I got the opportunity to.”
Every kid grows up with a dream like that.
Whether it’s playing centerfield for the Yankees, starting at quarterback for the Packers or tending goal for the Canadiens, we all go to sleep at night with visions of stardom in our head. For Teahan, that vision was stepping foot on James Naismith Court and raining threes while 16,000 fans clad in red and blue belted out the legendary “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” chant.
But unlike most of us, Teahan was able to see that dream become a reality. After playing mostly mop-up minutes in his first three years as a walk-on in Bill Self’s program and redshirting last season, Teahan has finally gotten his chance. He’s the sixth-man for Kansas this year, the first guard off the bench and a sharp-shooter brought in to help spread the floor and keep defenses from collapsing on the leading candidate for national player of the year. He’s averaging 7.1 ppg and 20.8 mpg this season. And despite a shooting slump of late, hitting just five of his last 23 attempts from beyond the arc, he’s still knocking down threes at a 37.3 percent clip.
It’s tough to imagine life being better for Teahan, who has already completed his finance degree and is currently working on a degree in accounting.
So why does he wish he was still riding the bench?
Conner Teahan had options. He didn’t have to walk-on at Kansas. He was a decorated high school athlete, a two-sport star that was good enough to hold scholarship offers in both basketball and football, where he was a 6-5 quarterback.
“I had scholarship offers. I was pretty much Missouri Valley,” Teahan said. “I was going to go to Wichita State when Mark Turgeon was there. I was going to also play football. I was thinking about maybe going to K-State or Missouri, but I couldn’t do it. I just like KU too much.”
Teahan isn’t a typical walk-on, either. He’s what’s known as a preferred walk-on. When he decided to go to Kansas, his spot on the team was already guaranteed. He didn’t have to tryout in the fall like the other guys that lead the cheers and wave the towels at the end of the bench. The only difference between Teahan and the myriad of top 50 recruits that Self brings in every season is that Teahan wasn’t going to be getting his education paid for.
But Teahan also knew that being a preferred walk-on wasn’t exactly a guarantee of playing time. Preferred walk-ons are commonplace in college hoops, but preferred walk-ons are still walk-ons. They are rarely part of the rotation of a powerhouse program without having some kind of back story. Jarvis Varnado, who was an all-conference center at Mississippi State, gave up his scholarship so that Rick Stansbury could bring in Renardo Sidney. Taylor Rochestie, who played at Washington State, and Nick Sidorakis, who played at Oklahoma State, both gave up their scholarships as seniors to avoid having a player that was recruited have to walk-on or transfer. Louisville’s Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith are both walk-ons and starters.
And, of course, there’s Andre Drummond. Drummond was the nation’s top recruit. Teahan was going to Wichita State.
“He’s never had the chance to play,” Self said. “He’s been a good player, but he’s been just good enough not to play because we’ve had so many good players.”
It’s kind of overwhelming when you look at the amount of talent that has gone through Lawrence during Teahan’s time as a Jayhawk. Ten players have gone on to play in the NBA, and that doesn’t include Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor or Jeff Withey, who all have a chance to make the league when they are done with their college eligibility.
It puts Teahan in a bit of an awkward situation. Here he is, the elder statesmen on the roster at 23 years old, but how much of a leader can he be when his goals are so different than that of so many of his teammates.
“Not too many of these guys are doing what I’m doing,” Teahan said. “When I try to motivate and lead or if one of my teammates is down, I try to cheer them back up by saying ‘man, we gotta get it right because time flies by so fast’. I just tell them about my experience, how fast five years have gone by. You don’t ever know when you’re going to be done with basketball.”
“I’m going to be done with basketball as soon as the season’s over. I won’t ever be playing basketball again. I just made up my mind on that. I’m not going to try and go with the overseas route or anything like that. You gotta get it your all every single day, I try to set that example in the locker room.”
So why do it?
“This is something that I always wanted to do,” he explained. “I’m just happy that I got the opportunity to play right now.”
Generally speaking, when a player redshirts in college, they do it as a freshmen.
Maybe they aren’t quite ready to contribute at the college level or maybe the depth on the roster means that he wouldn’t see time in the rotation. Instead of wasting a year of eligibility, he gets stashed on the bench, spending a year developing whatever aspect of his game is holding him back.
Teahan did things differently. He was eligible his first three season, but in what would have been his senior year, he realized that he wasn’t going to be getting any playing time. Instead of toiling away his final year of college buried on the bench, Teahan opted to take his redshirt and see in things would be better this season.
“That was our plan,” Self said. “We talked about it and he was like ‘Coach, if I can’t be in the rotation, let me sit out and then I could hopefully be in the rotation next year’. That’s been our plan with him.”
He wasn’t alone, either. Three of the starters on this year’s team are redshirts.
“We’ve had so much depth that Withey and Releford and Teahan are all redshirts. That’s been good for us,” Self said.
That decision ended up being a blessing for the Jayhawks when the NCAA’s ruling on Ben McLemore, Jamari Traylor and Braedon Anderson came down. (McLemore and Traylor have remained with the Kansas program, but Anderson is now sitting out at Fresno State.) Without those three in the fold, Kansas lost their safety net. the depth that has defined this Kansas program for so long was suddenly gone, thrusting Teahan into the spotlight.
Teahan was finally going to play. He was finally going to be a key member of this team, playing important minutes for one of the best teams in the country.
But if Teahan could have his way, he would be back on the bench.
“To be honest with you, if Ben McLemore was able to play, I probably wouldn’t be playing right now,” Teahan said. “That’s just how it is. I feel absolutely terrible with what’s happened to Ben and he would make our team better. So I’m sitting here like I want him to be able to play. I want to be in a position where I have to beat him or Travis out. It’s very unfortunate what’s happened to them, because Ben and Jamari would be a great addition to our team.”
“But I’m reaping the benefits a little bit and I’m now able to do something that I’ve dreamed about doing. Then again, they would have helped our team out a lot.”
That’s how much Teahan cares about this Kansas program.
He’s living out a dream he’s had since he knew what basketball was but he would trade it all to make his team better.
If that doesn’t define what a team player should be, than I don’t know what does.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.