Be careful how you congratulate Kansas coach Roy Williams on his Final Four appointment this Saturday with his mentor, North Carolina's Dean Smith. Williams, a former Carolina assistant who says he learned "about 90 percent of what we do" from Father Tar Heel, views with ambivalence all comparisons with his former boss. He's flattered to be mentioned with the man he still calls Coach Smith. But he bristles at the suggestion that winning a basketball game is simply a matter of laying down a Carolina-blue template and pushing a button. "I get tired of people saying it's the system, when it's really 18-, 19-and 20-year-old kids who should get the credit," says Williams.
So even though the Jayhawks iced their astonishing 93-81 Southeast Regional defeat of Arkansas by running the four corners, consider yourself forewarned. You get Kansas teed off at your peril. To wit: The Jayhawks beat New Orleans 55-49 in the first round only to hear CBS commentator Bill Walton insist that the Privateers were the better team. Then the Indiana band got a standing ovation when it took its seats in Freedom Hall in the midst of the Jayhawks' 77-66 second-round dismantling of Pittsburgh. There were other things that juiced up Kansas for its 83-65 regional semifinal defeat of the Hoosiers. "I really want to thank Dick Vitale and Jim Valvano," said Kansas forward Mike Maddox. "They gave a great diagram of Indiana's offense [on ESPN], how it was going to do this and that to us."
To get to the Final Four, all the Jayhawks needed were a few notices for their locker room bulletin board. The Razor-backs obliged, none more generously than center Oliver Miller, the 6'9", 275-pound endomorph. "I'm disappointed," said Miller on the eve of the Kansas game. "I've always wanted to play against a Bob Knight team. [Kansas has] good talent—I'm not going to downgrade any team or any coach—but I wanted to go out there and brutally beat [Indiana] with Arkansas-style ball." But, alas: "Kansas stepped up. Now they're going to have to take the beating Indiana was going to take."
Williams circulated a copy of Miller's commentary—faxed to him by Smith's secretary—then prevailed upon his players to meet Arkansas's ballyhooed "40 minutes of hell" with an infernal effort of their own. Truth be told, Kansas hasn't been in the best of moods all season, inasmuch as it wasn't allowed to defend its 1988 NCAA title (because of rules violations committed by a coach who had left), while UNLV is currently being allowed to defend its 1990 crown (despite past violations by a coach who's still there).
Throughout the season two things well within a team's control—free throw shooting and turnovers—kept a good Kansas squad from being a great one. The Big Eight co-champions averaged 19.7 turnovers a game in their seven losses and came into the NCAAs with the worst free throw percentage (61.9) in the field of 64. In the regional final the Jayhawks would have to parlay elementary execution on those two counts with such Carolina hallmarks as a deep bench (nine players average double-figure minutes) and a half-court trap—in short, 40 minutes of Heel.
In the semifinal matchup with Indiana, Jayhawk guard Terry Brown, an art major with a nice stroke, dropped two three-pointers and an orthodox two in the opening minutes, and Kansas raced out to a 23-4 lead. "[Referee] John Cloughery came over to me with about five minutes gone and said there was a screw loose in the floor," said Knight, who had never before suffered such a lopsided NCAA tournament loss. "I said, 'Why don't we start over again tomorrow?' "
Against Indiana, Kansas had found half of its winning formula, committing a season-low nine turnovers. But Arkansas's system is predicated on inducing opponents to cough up the ball, and the Hogs turned Alabama's offense to slop in their 93-70 victory. "We hung in for the first 25 or 28 minutes," said Crimson Tide coach Wimp Sanderson. "Then the turnovers and double teams got to us."
By halftime of Saturday's final, Kansas looked like a team ready to succumb early. Down 17-6, Kansas pulled briefly ahead, then watched the Hogs go on a 20-6 run to take a 47-35 halftime lead. Arkansas, it seemed, hadn't bothered waiting until after the break to do to the Jayhawks what it had done to 'Bama.
But the Razorbacks delivered only 20 minutes of hell, and would settle for 20 more of mere heck. Kansas center Mark Randall opened the half by finding Brown for a backdoor layup. Brown added a solo layin. Maddox, who plays with two degenerative disks in his back, took a charge against Hogs guard Arlyn Bowers. Then Randall drained a free throw, and forward Alonzo Jamison, who was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player, threw in a three-pointer. As Kansas made a new game of it, Arkansas's star swingman, Todd Day, who had soared for 31 points against Alabama and 21 more in the first half against Kansas, began work on a 2-for-11, five-point second-half disappearance. When the Jayhawks pulled even at 51, the Razorbacks were already over the foul limit—and more than 16 minutes remained to be played.
Here Kansas outdid itself, solving its other season-long bugaboo. The Jayhawks took 25 free throws from that point and sank 21, including a dozen in a row. Meanwhile, Jamison was dogging Day at one end and bulling and scooping his way past Miller at the other. (For the record, that foot in Miller's mouth is one of two red-and-white Converse lowtops, size 15, with O KNOWS inscribed on the left heel, and HAWG BALL on the right.) "I think about what he said, and it still gets me mad," said Jamison, who wound up with a career-high 26 points on 11-for-14 work from the floor. "They're disappointed they didn't get to play Indiana? Guess they're real disappointed now."
Randall has a ring to commemorate the Jayhawks' 1988 title, but as a redshirt who sat on the bench in street clothes, he considers it a mere bauble. Maddox, then a freshman, played in the championship game, but only for a few seconds, picking up one foul.
Both want a title they can call their own. "I saw the other day that the odds against us winning are 30 to 1," Maddox says. "It was 50 to 1 the year we won. Now we've got at least one chance in four. Maybe we're getting more respect."
The Jayhawks can certainly count on respect from North Carolina. With all due respect to Williams and his plucky Jayhawks, if the Tar Heels can't respect Kansas, they can't respect themselves.