You can forgive the preseason pollsters for characterizing Kansas as dust in the early wind of the college basketball season. Who wouldn't have overlooked the Jayhawks, whose season as defending national champions last year ended with an ignominious 11 losses in its final 17 games? It didn't really matter anyway, since Kansas was barred from the 1989 NCAA tournament because of past improprieties. Out of sight, the Jayhawks found themselves out of the preseason rankings. One national magazine—not this one, thank goodness—predicted that Kansas would finish last in the Big Eight.
Presumably, such ill will no longer haunts the Jayhawks, not after last week when Kansas became the first team in recent memory to defeat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the (now antiquated) AP preseason college basketball poll. While most squads were laboring with early-season cobwebs, Kansas rolled through the Dodge NTT with NCAA tournament precision, along the way humbling top-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas and No. 2 Louisiana State in successive upset outings. Later, the Jayhawks raised their record to 4-0 by crashing the tournament's Madison Square Garden party on Friday in New York City with a 66-57 rout of hometown St. John's in the championship game.
It was, in fact, a week that so shook the rankings that it might be wise to trash the preseason polls altogether. Consider the carnage: No. 20 Minnesota (according to the AP poll) lost 66-64 to Cincinnati, a consensus doormat in the Metro conference; Steve Fisher, coach of No. 4 Michigan, actually lost a game, his first, to No. 6 Arizona in the Tipoff Classic; former Maryland and current James Madison coach Lefty Driesell, who could never seem to beat Dean Smith in the ACC, held a nine-point lead with 1:15 to play against No. 7 North Carolina in the Maui Classic but lost, 80-79, on a hope shot at the buzzer by Tar Heel guard King Rice (the Tar Heels then lost in the final to 11th-ranked Missouri 80-73); and No. 13 UCLA barely survived against unranked Santa Clara, winning 66-62.
So, who's No. 1 now?
As the Jayhawks stated their case on the Garden floor, Steven Pritchard, father of KU point guard Kevin Pritchard, was touting the Jayhawks on the sidelines. Steven is the Nashville impresario who got Roseanne Barr her first paid gig. He also handles a bunch of country and western musicians, and he once promoted the rock group Kansas. In New York, he was thumping the tub for his son's underexposed band. "They're the Rodney Dangerfield of sports," said Steven. "They're not like an entertainer who goes out on stage with lights and tricks. They're like Bill Cosby. All he needs is a stool."
Only two years ago Kansas was billed as Manning and the Miracles. Players like Pritchard, guard Jeff Gueldner and forward Mike Maddox were perceived as a mere backup group for Danny Manning, the consensus Player of the Year who led Kansas to the national title. Manning was a senior, so the Miracles were on their own last season, their first under coach Roy Williams, who took over for the mercurial Larry Brown, now with the San Antonio Spurs. Burdened by numerous injuries and by NCAA sanctions—Brown's staff and boosters had improperly spent about $1,200 on former Memphis State guard Vincent Askew when Askew was considering transferring to Lawrence—the Jayhawks finished 6-8 in their conference, 19-12 overall. Now things are back to normal, with the help of yet another player with an NCAA championship ring, forward Rick Calloway, a transfer from Indiana, where he was a member of the Hoosiers' 1987 championship team. "The press made us out to be a one-man team in 1988," says Kevin Pritchard. "But there was more there. A lot more there."
Forgive these Jayhawks if they have developed something of a complex about the lack of respect they're accorded. After their 89-83 defeat of LSU in Baton Rouge in the NIT quarterfinals on Nov. 17, it was announced on ESPN that they would play DePaul in the semifinals. So Williams spent the night after the game breaking down tapes of the Blue Demons, only to find out the following morning, on his way to church, that it was UNLV, not DePaul, who would be awaiting Kansas in New York. (The NIT organizers—giving new meaning to the "dodge" in their event's title—had reserved the right to shuffle around the matchups after the quarters; they hoped to set up a St. John's-UNLV final to please the home folks.) Then, at a tournament soiree at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park, Williams was introduced as Ron Williams.
Williams, a former assistant to Dean Smith at North Carolina, wasn't above using these slights for motivational purposes. The results were impressive. Time after time in their 91-77 defeat of UNLV on Nov. 22, the Jayhawks' big men beat the Vegas defenders down the floor for easy layups. The spectacle left Runnin' Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian noshing forlornly on his terry-cloth calzone. "The Jayhawks are further along than any team I've ever seen," Tarkanian said. "They're running their offense like it was February."
Williams's system is a loosely codified package of continuous motion, screens away from the ball and standing permission for anyone with a good shot to eye it and fly it. Kansas's big men, usually posted in the paint, are essential to the attack. In the first 11 minutes of the second half against UNLV, when Kansas stretched its four-point halftime lead to as much as 20 points, all but two of the Jayhawks' field goals came on a dunk or layup from a frontliner. All the Kansas big men run, none better than Pekka Markkanen, a 6'10", 22-year-old former soccer goalie from Finland who, like another outsized converted net-minder, Akeem Olajuwon, has terrific hands. Markkanen was the main reason why several of the most touted centers in the nation—Alabama-Birmingham's 7'2" Alan Ogg, in the Jayhawks' 109-83 first-round victory; LSU's 7'1" Shaquille O'Neal; UNLV's 6'7" Larry Johnson and St. John's 6'11" Robert Werdann—were dizzied by all the movement and saddled with early fouls that stilled their effectiveness.
When LSU and Vegas were forced into zones, and against St. John's sagging man-to-man, Pritchard, Gueldner and a juco-transfer reserve named Terry Brown drew their beads on the rim and knocked down jumpers. "They're beautiful to watch," said Redmen coach Lou Carnesecca. "They reduce the game to simplicity."
At first glance, the Jayhawks resemble North Carolina, with the shade of blue dialed up a notch. Pritchard signals the defense after every basket. The Jayhawks huddle before free throws. And upon leaving the game, a player takes his seat to a standing ovation from teammates on the sideline. Calloway, Maddox, Markkanen and forward Mark Randall aren't talents on the order of James Worthy and Sam Perkins, but they can throw difficult little two-and three-foot passes to each other in traffic, the kind of passes that turn good shots into gimmes, the kind that were commonplace in Chapel Hill during the early '80s.
"Ninety-nine percent of the things we do I got from Dean Smith," says Williams. "But it's the kids who have gone out and done this."
No one has done more than Randall. Under Brown he quickly fell into disfavor. Word was that he was a hypochondriac, someone who would slink off to the training room after taking an elbow. Brown benched him, then guided Kansas to the title while Randall sat out as a medical redshirt. Williams describes Randall as "the least confident good player I'd ever seen."
By the end of last season, however, Randall had begun figuring out what to do with his broadly distributed 230 pounds. In the Jayhawks' last three riveting victories in the NIT, he maneuvered through myriad defenders for 27 field goals on 38 shots. With the Redmen having just tied the final at 55 and Randall sitting on the bench with four fouls, Williams sent him back in, even though 6:37 remained. Kansas quickly took control as Randall provided rebounds and brazen defense, including a remarkable pirouette to steal a St. John's entry pass. He was the only possible choice for MVP.
Williams's upbeat style has changed Calloway and Pritchard, too. Calloway, weary of Bob Knight's mouth and baffled by diminished playing time, is now a carefree contributor. And Pritchard is rejuvenated. "Coach Brown drew up so many emotions in me," he says. "One day I was on cloud nine, the next day down in the dumps. I had one eye on the basket and one eye on Coach Brown."
Williams won't second-guess any other coach's style, even as he stands by his own. "It's like in golf," he says. "Some guys hit fades; some guys hit hooks. But they're all aiming for the same spot." Tactful and reserved, he seems every bit the dean's list student. He dresses like a hotel check-in clerk, doesn't smoke or drink, and when he's animated, looks like Huckleberry Hound. His players and his assistants laugh at his pseudo-profanity. "This is only a dad-gum basketball game!" he said during a first-half timeout against UNLV. "Just step up and shoot the flippin' free throws!"
For eight of his 10 years in Chapel Hill, Williams was a part-timer, paid little more than a graduate assistant. He made ends meet by driving 504 miles every Sunday delivering copies of The Dean Smith Show to TV stations around the state. He took over the national champions several months after Brown had bolted but before Kansas learned of its probation penalty. Yet he was undeterred. "We didn't have that carrot at the end of the road," Williams says. "So I made up a cause. They had to keep my tail happy."
The Jayhawks bolted to a 13-1 start last season, but withered, losing eight straight conference games during one dismal stretch. Twice, injury-riddled Kansas finished games with no one left on the bench because three of its players had fouled out. In the waning seconds of a one-sided loss at Missouri, one Tiger player said to Williams, "Coach, why don't you take your starters out?" Williams couldn't—he had no reserves. Still, the Jayhawks carried on with a plucky integrity, earning a standing ovation in their Allen Field House after an overtime loss to Oklahoma.
UNLV could learn a lesson from the Jayhawks' resiliency. The Runnin' Rebels' preseason notices were predicated on their having Moses Scurry and David Butler, now academic casualties, in the lineup. Butler received an incomplete in a summer-school anthropology class and should become eligible on Dec. 17.
Scurry, who's from Brooklyn, wanted desperately to make the trip east last week, and to that end vowed that he would become eligible by scoring the requisite 75 on a final exam in a stress-management course.
"You going to New York, Mo?" someone asked him as Thanksgiving approached.
"Is Reagan president?" Scurry replied, too confidently.
Tarkanian was despondent when word reached him before the semis that Scurry had scored only 68. Until the second semester, Johnson will have to take care of the frontcourt chores without much help.
For the moment, somebody has to be No. 1.
Syracuse? Georgetown? Arizona, perhaps?
Steven Pritchard has a suggestion. "I mean, look at this team," he says, flogging the Jayhawks. "They always seem to get five guys in double figures. And even in the championship game [in '88], the four starters other than Danny shot 81 percent...."
Pritchard has booked a lot of acts in Denver, the site of this season's Final Four. His clients have performed at Red Rocks and they have played the Paramount Theatre. "But I've never done McNichols Arena," he says. "Not yet, anyway."