Coach Roy Williams stood before a convocation of Jayhawks
boosters on Nov. 8 and delivered a rousing sermon. "I know each
one of you wants Kansas to win a national championship this
year," Williams said. "But I promise that if you combined the
desire of all 475 of you in this room, it wouldn't match the
desire in my little finger. It ain't even close."
Although Williams may be consumed by his lust for an NCAA title,
you couldn't fault the guy if he tried to douse expectations a
little, especially after he nearly lost his best player--twice.
On May 6, Jayhawks point guard Jacque Vaughn paraphrased Robert
Frost when he said, "I will take the road less traveled," as he
announced that he would be bucking the recent trend to leave
school early for the NBA and instead would return to Lawrence
for his senior season. Then four months later, on Sept. 10,
Vaughn's road wound through the University Medical Center after
he tore ligaments in his right wrist while playing in a pickup
game at Allen Fieldhouse.
Vaughn, who already holds Kansas's alltime assists record, is
likely to be sidelined until the New Year, and that may cost the
team one or two early-season games. But there are whispers
around Lawrence that the injury might be a blessing in disguise
for Vaughn, who has led the Jayhawks in minutes the last two
seasons and has demonstrated a tendency to wear down. It will
also allow Williams to give some playing time to sophomore guard
Ryan Robertson, who, when he played at St. Charles (Mo.) West
High, broke the national high school record for combined points
and assists held by Jason Kidd.
Of course, it hardly matters who runs the point unless Kansas
finds somebody who can shoot straight. The Jayhawks shot just
45.4% from the floor and 32.6% from three-point range last
season, easily the worst in Williams's eight years at Kansas.
The erratic shooting eventually led to the team's undoing when
Syracuse sat back in a zone and watched the Jayhawks shoot 4 for
25 from beyond the arc during a 60-57 upset in the West Regional
Shooting guard Jerod Haase, who's now a senior, was the worst
offender on the offense, shooting a miserable 35.6% from the
floor in '95-96 (down from 43.3% the year before), capped off by
an even more miserable 0-for-9 nightmare in the Syracuse loss.
During the regular season Haase attempted every quick fix he
could find, including a visit to a sports psychologist, but
nothing helped. Already a workaholic, Haase resolved to shoot
more than any other player in the country this summer, but he
vows there will be no more gimmicks once the season begins. Says
Haase, "One of my professors told me that if you're already in a
hole, then stop digging." If Haase doesn't rediscover his range,
look for Robertson, who shot 45.2% from three-point territory a
year ago, to take some minutes at shooting guard once Vaughn
Paul Pierce, a 6'7" sophomore forward who was the Jayhawks'
second-leading scorer (11.9 points per game) last season, must
also contribute more. Pierce says he is not fazed by incessant
comparisons to former Kansas All-America Danny Manning, partly
because he isn't exactly sure which position Manning played.
Pierce is a slasher who can also hit the three-point shot, but
he suffered from rookie inconsistency a year ago and sometimes
played tentatively in the closing minutes of games. "Last year I
sat back and let the older guys decide the outcome of games,"
Pierce says. "This year I won't be afraid to take the big shot."
If the perimeter players begin to score again from the outside,
it should open up more elbowroom down low for 6'10" senior
center Scot Pollard and for 6'11" junior forward Raef LaFrentz,
who hopes to improve upon his team-leading 13.4 points and 8.2
rebounds a game. LaFrentz has admitted that he is afraid of
heights, but not of high expectations. "We didn't come to Kansas
to be satisfied with playing in the NCAAs," LaFrentz says. "We
came here to play for a national title."
Williams won't be happy with anything less. For five years now
he has taken a regular lunchtime jog to the gravesite of
legendary Kansas coach Phog Allen, where he pats the headstone
for inspiration. And he will continue to tell anybody who asks
just how badly he wants to win a national championship. Once
upon a time, Allen talked the same way, and both coaches have
handled their critics with one of Allen's favorite aphorisms: If
the mailman stopped for every barking dog, he'd never finish his
COLOR PHOTO: ALTERED POLAROIDS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. PIERCE WAITED IN THE WINGS LAST SEASON BUT NOW HAS TO PERFORM ON CENTER STAGE [Paul Pierce]