Not long after Kansas' 85-82 loss to Arizona in last year's NCAA
Southeast Regional semifinals, coach Roy Williams was stopped by
a Jayhawks zealot at the Kansas City airport. "Coach, you let us
down," the fan said.
"Let you down?" Williams says he replied, his voice rising in
anger as he recounts the episode. "What did you have invested in
us, besides your mouth?" Williams briefly considered flattening
the guy, but instead he just turned and stormed away.
"It's almost as if people want you to apologize, and I'm not
going to do that," he says. "We went 34-2 last year, and each of
the six seniors got his degree. Now if that's not enough, then
I'm in the wrong profession. The tournament gets so much
attention, it has turned into an obsession."
Obsession: That word is at the heart of the Williams paradox. As
Williams will tell you, no one--not even that airport
heckler--is more driven than he is to win his first national
championship. "Our fans here are spoiled," he says, "but we as
coaches are spoiled, too. I was destroyed for weeks. Why should
I have been so disappointed?"
Williams, a renowned brooder, spent the summer conducting an
exhaustive audit of his coaching performance. "I wanted to see
if I was doing anything that was harmful to our team," he says.
He analyzed the minutiae of last season, down to each day's
practice plan. He spoke to more than 50 former players to ask
them about their experience with him. He took long, solitary
walks on the beach near his South Carolina vacation house.
His conclusion? "It wasn't anything I was doing wrong," he says.
"It's just the nature of the game. There are so many good teams
and good players that one team can't count on winning the
Perhaps Kansas will have an advantage in not being the favorite
this year. The Jayhawks lost starting guards Jacque Vaughn and
Jerod Haase and center Scot Pollard to graduation, but they have
probably the best set of forwards in the country in 6'11" senior
Raef LaFrentz and 6'7" junior Paul Pierce. After both gave
Kansas fans some anxious moments in the weeks leading up to the
NBA draft, they decided to return for another season, in which
the two of them could be named first-team All-Americas; the last
pair of teammates to do that was North Carolina's Michael Jordan
and Sam Perkins in 1983-84. "Having one superstar is great, but
two is unstoppable," says LaFrentz, who led Kansas with 18.5
points and 9.3 rebounds a game last season and might be the top
pick in next June's draft.
Pierce will certainly be harder to stop than he was a year ago,
having spent part of his summer at home in Los Angeles playing
in a league with Arizona's Miles Simon, who didn't hesitate to
crow about his national title. Pierce didn't let it bother him.
"Paul has matured tenfold every year," says junior Ryan
Robertson, who takes over at point guard, where he was 11-0 as a
starter when Vaughn was injured last season. "He's working
harder, and he's a more vocal leader this year. It's pretty much
a given that Raef will have a good year, but I would look for a
really big year from Paul."
Two freshmen should also make immediate contributions.
Six-foot-five Kenny Gregory, who was the MVP of last year's
McDonald's High School All-America Game, could be the starting
shooting guard, and 7-foot Eric Chenowith, one of the nation's
top five recruits at center this year, will help in the middle.
But the Jayhawks' most important addition won't be available
until Dec. 19, when 6'8" LSU transfer Lester Earl becomes
eligible. "Lester has unbelievable athleticism," says LaFrentz.
"His post moves are very raw, but with some help from Coach
Williams he'll develop those, and he's an animal on the
In other words, Earl might be just what Kansas needs. "We lost
our four best defensive players from last year's team," says
Williams. "We'll be good this year, but just how good depends on
how well we do on the defensive end of the floor."
During his summer of soul-searching, Williams asked several of
his coaching buddies what he might be doing to give his team the
jitters during the tournament. Some of them suggested that he
applies too much pressure by speaking so openly of his craving
for a championship. But then Williams talked to his players, and
they told him it wasn't a problem. "If it's something you want,
why not talk about it," says Pierce. "I want to win a national
championship, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO WITH TOP SCORER LAFRENTZ BACK, THE JAYHAWKS SHOULD ELBOW THEIR WAY INTO THE FINAL FOUR [Raef LaFrentz in game]
Returning Starters [Two]
Points per Game '96-97 84.9
PPG by All Returning Players 53.8