For some, it begins before the ink dries on their National Letter of Intent. For others, the highest-profile talents, it starts with their verbal commitment.
For Travis Releford, it began even sooner than that.
Prior to his freshman season on Mount Oread in 2008, Releford was a standout at nearby Roeland Park (KS) Bishop Miege High School. Long touted as one of the top prospects in his class not only regionally, but nationally, Kansas fans set their sights on him early.
See, the Sunflower State doesn't produce talents like Releford with regularity. Though the Kansas City area has increased its basketball profile in recent years – largely thanks to the success of the nationally-respected KC Pump N Run AAU team of which Releford was a member – players as highly-touted as he are still something of a rarity.
By the time it was all said and done, he was ranked by Scout.com as the #10 shooting guard in the country, with listed strengths of "ability to create, big-time scorer and poise."
This, thought Jayhawk Nation, is a guy we need to have.
So by the time Releford faxed in his National Letter of Intent on Signing Day 2008, the expectations placed on him were sky high. On the surface, it seemed as if he were stepping into the perfect situation. Fresh off a National Championship, the Jayhawks were losing long-time starters Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and Brandon Rush, and though the 2008 recruiting class featured a number of guards Releford was generally regarded as the gym.
To many Kansas fans, his spot in the regular rotation – if not the starting lineup – seemed all but assured.
Life, however, failed to follow the script.
Releford struggled to find his footing in the collegiate game that first year, and though he appeared in all but three games during the season, he averaged just seven minutes per contest. Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Tyshawn Taylor jumped up to claim the bulk of the minutes alongside Sherron Collins.
Still, the expectations never died – from the fans or the coaching staff. Prior to the 2009-2010 season, Head Coach Bill Self commented that he believed Releford could be a 1,000 point scorer at Kansas before his career was complete.
But with the late addition of McDonald's All-American small forward Xavier Henry to the mix, many began to wonder from where his minutes would come.
Talk of a redshirt year began to pop up, and though it wasn't part of the plan when he arrived at Kansas, he came to see it as a great opportunity to improve – an opportunity he eventually took.
"Coming here, I never saw myself redshirting," the 6-foot-4 small forward said. "But after the fact and making it through the season, I realized I felt like it was a great decision. I was improving. I saw the results, and I'm just going to take it and go with it."
While the rest of the team prepared for their games each week, Releford learned to approach each practice as if it were a game; to bring that same level of intensity each and every day.
That focus spilled over into his solo workouts as well. Determined to improve his jumpshot – perhaps the one notable weakness in his game – Releford would consistently hoist 500 to 600 shots a day, sometimes early in the morning.
"I was doing that all during the season last year, and I continued doing that during the summer," he said. "I just built up a lot of confidence doing that."
It's work that has paid off. Just ask Coach Self, who during Tuesday's annual pre-season Media Day said that his shot was the area in which Releford had improved the most.
"I don't know if I see him scoring a lot," Self explained. "But I see him playing a lot. Hopefully he can be a lockdown-type defender."
To some degree, the same opportunities that opened up to Releford as a freshman have opened again, this time as a sophomore. With Collins and Henry in the NBA, there are minutes available for the taking, but the competition will be fierce. Seniors Morningstar, Mario Little (also coming off a redshirt year) and Reed, as well as freshmen like Josh Selby and Royce Woolridge, will all have something to say in the conversation for playing time.
But right now, with the season just days away, Releford is just happy to be back in the hunt.
"Just coming out and performing," he said, when asked what would make 2010-2011 a successful season for him as a player. "Showing people I can play. That's about it. That's what people want to see."