If we all agree that the big Eight is the nation's toughest conference, worthy of six spots in the NCAA tournament—no matter what happens in the league's own tournament this weekend in Kansas City—then what in the name of Dr. James Naismith are we to make of Kansas? The unselfish, semianonymous Jayhawks won the regular-season title by an astounding three games. On Sunday they put the final touches on the championship with a marvelous 97-89 home court victory over Missouri.
The game was a classic example of a great—well, pretty darned good—team overcoming a great player. With significant contributions from 10 of the 12 players deployed by coach Roy Williams, Kansas withstood a 43-point outburst by Tiger guard Anthony Peeler, who made 16 of 28 shots, including five of nine from three-point range. And the thing was, the Jayhawks played excellent defense against Peeler, a smooth 6'4" senior southpaw, sometimes sending two men flying in his direction. To what end? Swish, swish, swish.
"I wasn't even thinking about it," said Peeler afterward. "I just pulled up and shot the ball instead of trying to go one-on-one."
"Seemed like he was unconscious," said Alonzo Jamison, Kansas's 6'6" defensive specialist, who checked Peeler for most of the game. "He got this glare in his eyes. I feel pretty drained."
"I caught him after the game," said Williams, "and I told him that, in my 10 years as an assistant at North Carolina and my four years here, that was as good a performance as I had ever seen."
And the Kansas-Mizzou matchup made for as entertaining a game as you're likely to see. It also typified the way the Jayhawks play. They don't have a player who can dominate a game from the outside, the way Peeler can, or from the inside, the way Byron Houston of Oklahoma State, the Big Eight's third powerhouse, can. Kansas's leading scorer is a transfer from Northwestern, of all places, but the Jayhawks have the AJ boys—Jamison and point guard Adonis Jordan—and a formidable cast in reserve.
"I'd rather play on a team like ours than on one like Missouri's," said Jordan, a 5'11" junior. "Before the game we talked about controlling Peeler. But on our team any of the starting five can give you 20 points."
Going into the season, anybody picking Kansas to win the Big Eight should have been packed off to a funny farm, considering that the Jayhawks had lost three starters from a team that went all the way to the NCAA championship game before bowing to Duke. But if Williams was expecting the insatiable Jayhawk fans to cut him and his players any slack this season, he was dissuaded during the parade that the city of Lawrence gave the team upon its return from the Final Four. "I bet I heard 10 different fans yelling stuff like, 'Don't worry, Coach, we'll get 'em next year in Minneapolis [site of this year's Final Four],' " said Williams as he was unwinding in his office late Sunday evening. "It's great to coach at a place where people care so much about basketball, but sometimes the expectations can be so unrealistic that you don't enjoy things as much as you should."
So that's why Williams was still coaching after the final buzzer on Sunday. As soon as the hugging was done, he shooed everyone off the floor so that his four seniors could accept the 1992 Big Eight championship trophy and cut the nets. Although the Jayhawks had clinched the title on March 4, despite losing at Iowa State on that date, Williams was upset that his players had seemingly backed into the title. "I wanted them to have a chance to celebrate," he said. "It's hard to celebrate when you've just had a poor effort, as we did at Iowa State. I wanted them to know what they've accomplished, which is so much that it's hard for them to even grasp."
It would have been too bad if Kansas had turned out to be the mediocre team it might have been, because as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the invention of basketball, it's comforting to know that the game is still played as well, and appreciated as much, in Lawrence as it is anywhere else in the country. The Kansas tradition is so rich that Williams was seen wiping away tears when the Jayhawks' 1952 NCAA champions were honored at a recent banquet. It couldn't have helped that North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who almost single-handedly prodded Kansas into hiring Williams, was a reserve on that team, which was coached by the legendary Forrest (Phog) Allen.
Allen won 590 games in 39 years at Kansas before retiring in 1956, and he's still fondly remembered, even by current students. One of them held up a sign on Sunday that read MINNEAPOLIS WEATHER REPORT: PHOGGY.
Even before Allen, however, the Jayhawks were coached by Naismith, who brought the game to Lawrence in 1898 and coached there until Allen took over. Thus the coaching bloodline at Kansas is as pure as any you will find in the sport: Naismith to Allen to Smith to Williams. "People always say that I brought the Carolina system to Kansas," says Williams, "but you could also say that I brought the Kansas system back to Kansas. Many times at Carolina, Coach Smith would say, 'Doc Allen would do it this way or that way.' He took what he learned here and put it with what he got from [longtime North Carolina coach] Frank McGuire and then added some of his own stuff. I'm not intelligent enough to have added too much."
Yeah, right. Williams uses the system—fast break whenever possible, motion half-court offense, switching pressure defenses, wholesale substitutions—so well that the more paranoid fans in Lawrence worry that he will catch the first flight to Chapel Hill as soon as the 61-year-old Smith retires. But with Smith seemingly bent on coaching until he's 70 or until he breaks Adolph Rupp's NCAA record of 875 victories, whichever comes first, Williams has settled in comfortably enough to spurn overtures from Florida, Maryland, Ohio State, N.C. State, Notre Dame and Virginia. "I remember Coach Smith saying that Lawrence was the kind of place that you would never want to leave," says Williams. "I've really come to feel at home here."
The Jayhawks seemed to be comfortable in a secondary role during the first half of the season, when Oklahoma State bolted to a 20-0 start and into the national spotlight. But when the Cowboys faltered in February, Kansas jumped into the breach. Its only home loss en route to building a 23-4 record came inexplicably to Louisville in January. After beating Missouri, which was ranked No. 11 in the nation, the Jayhawks remained No. 3 in the AP poll released on Monday.
One can only imagine how good Kansas would be with Peeler in its lineup—where he might well have been. The Jayhawks lost the recruiting battle for Peeler, who graduated from Paseo High in Kansas City in 1988, only because then Kansas coach Larry Brown wouldn't guarantee Peeler that he would remain in Lawrence for the duration of Peeler's college career. Peeler then turned to Maryland, hoping to play there with Alonzo Mourning. However, when Mourning chose Georgetown, Peeler settled on Missouri. "I wish Larry would have lied," says Williams.
With Peeler already at Missouri when Williams signed on in July 1988, the Jayhawks' recruiting prospects looked bleak. They got bleaker four months later when the NCAA slapped Kansas with a three-year probation for rules violations committed under Brown. Still, in his first year with the Jayhawks, Williams was able to sign Jordan, who flashes a star set in a gold front tooth whenever he smiles, which is often. "I was going to Seton Hall after I heard about the probation," says Jordan, "but Coach Williams seemed like a real honest man."
Under the terms of its probation Kansas could not pay for on-campus recruiting visits until the spring of 1990, so Williams had to make do with what he could accomplish on the road. Among those players he picked up was the catalyst of this team, Rex Walters, a mop-haired, superserious 6'4" junior guard from San Jose who went to Northwestern after Brown's staff refused to recruit him. One reason to like Walters, if you don't already, is that he got in Dick Vitale's face before a game against DePaul in December, because Vitale had criticized Walters on the air for having left Northwestern. After a heated exchange Walters apologized to Vitale, "not for what I said but the way I said it. I'm a little cocky and brash, and I've got to work on not coming off that way."
His outburst notwithstanding, Walters, who leads the Jayhawks in scoring with a 16.2 average, is as quiet and private as his roommate, Jordan, is personable and outgoing. They form an interchangeable backcourt combination. "I can penetrate and kick it off to Rex, or he can do the same for me," says Jordan.
As much as he likes Jordan, Walters thinks Jamison is the Jayhawks' MVP because he does it all—score, rebound, guard the opponent's best player and provide leadership. That's a remarkable accomplishment for Jamison, considering that he was once such a reluctant learner that he nearly drove Williams crazy. "There was a time that if he had stepped out in the middle of the street, I'd have accelerated the car as hard as I could," says Williams, kiddingly.
How have things changed for Jamison? On Sunday one student wielded a sign that read THE LAND OF OZ NOW IS THE LAND OF 'zo, as in Alonzo.
Zo and his mates look to be a cinch No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, and they should be joined in the tournament by Missouri, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Nebraska. "This is the best conference, bar none, and I don't care what anybody says," says Walters.
Indeed, as Williams walked into his office on Sunday night, the hugging over and the nets snipped, he looked at the new addition—the Big Eight trophy—sitting on a table behind his desk. "That looks mighty good," he said. But he also knew it wasn't good enough—not at Kansas, where the expectations are so bright and clear that you can even see them through the Phog.