Nothing worked. Not the long, solitary hours spent in the gym.
Not the lonely walks across campus late at night, contemplating
his lack of confidence. Not the letters he received from fans
young and old telling him to "use his legs more" and "change his
follow-through." Not even his visits to a sports psychologist.
For Jerod Haase shooting the basketball last season became as
difficult as reading Sanskrit. And no matter what he did to try
to regain his touch, his struggle only escalated to epic
"I tried everything, absolutely everything, to get out of my
shooting slump," says Haase, the Jayhawks' senior off-guard, who
averaged 10.8 points a game on 35.6% shooting from the field and
29.3% from beyond the arc, as compared with sophomore year
averages of 15.0, 43.6% and 37.2%, respectively. "It was an
extremely difficult year for me because I'm a perfectionist.
That's why this summer I tried to shoot the ball more than
anyone in the country. So no matter what happens this year, I
can take comfort in the fact that I've prepared as hard as I can."
Haase sank to his personal nadir last March in Denver, at the
NCAA tournament's West Regional final against Syracuse. The
Orangemen knew going into the game that Kansas's two worst
shooting performances of the year, against Temple (28.2%) and
Iowa State (32.0%, in the Big Eight tournament final), had come
against teams that played suffocating zone defenses. The
Jayhawks as a team had been mired in a yearlong shooting funk
from the outside, so Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's plan was to
shut down Kansas's inside game with a collapsing zone and force
the Jayhawks to take perimeter shots. Haase had plenty of good
looks at the basket, but the shots were all short, long or wide.
He finished the night 0 for 9 from the field, with a season-low
three points, as Kansas, the preseason No. 1, fell 60-57.
"Jerod was really hurt, disgusted about the way he played last
year, particularly the way he shot the ball," says Kansas coach
Roy Williams. "I hope he relaxes a bit. I think he puts too much
pressure on himself."
November 15, 1996
Haase's shooting may very well determine if Kansas wins the
national championship this season. The Jayhawks bring back all
five starters and their top seven scorers from last year's 29-5
team. But the secret is out: If Kansas isn't hitting its outside
shot, it's as vulnerable as a jayhawk with a broken wing. "We
know that everybody thinks we can't shoot," says Haase. "But all
of us have worked very hard this summer on improving that aspect
of our game."
One player who may have worked a little too hard this off-season
is point guard Jacque Vaughn. After surprising much of the
nation by announcing in May that he would return to Lawrence for
his senior year and bypass the NBA draft, in which he would very
likely have been a first-round pick, Vaughn tore a ligament in
his right wrist, an accident that will keep him out of action
until at least December. The injury to Vaughn--the Big Eight
player of the year last season, who averaged 10.9 points and led
the league with 6.6 assists per game--occurred during a Sept. 10
pickup game at Allen Fieldhouse when he tried to break his fall
after colliding with teammate Billy Thomas.
"I had better be ready to play," says sophomore point guard Ryan
Robertson. His Huck Finn looks will be on frequent display
because he will be Kansas's floor leader until Vaughn returns.
"I played a lot of 2-guard last year because of need, but I
played point guard every single minute of my high school career.
I feel capable."
Robertson led the team in three-point percentage (45.2) and free
throw accuracy (77.0). He is not the offensive penetrator or
defensive menace that Vaughn is, so Williams plans to limit how
often the Jayhawks push the ball up the floor early in the
season and how much pressure they apply on defense. But
Robertson will play major minutes, acquiring experience that
should prove eminently valuable come tournament time.
"Ryan will do a good job," says Williams. "I'm more concerned
with our overall inconsistency in shooting and with our taking
too many three-point shots. We need to be more selective with
our shots and not just take what people give us. We need to get
better with that, or we have to make big improvements in other
areas of the game, like rebounding and defense, so that we'll be
so good in those areas that it won't matter if we're struggling
with our shooting."
To reduce the number of outside shots they launch, the Jayhawks
will rely more heavily this year on the talents of forward Paul
Pierce, the co-Big Eight freshman of the year last season. Like
many rookies at Kansas, Pierce struggled at times with
Williams's complex offense and defense. But he averaged 11.7
points and 5.3 rebounds, playing well enough to elicit
comparisons in the local press to the greatest Jayhawk of recent
vintage, Danny Manning. "We expect big things from Paul," says
Williams. "He just needs to keep his intensity level high for
the entire game. He had a problem with that last year."
Two players who didn't have a problem with that were forward
Raef LaFrentz and center Scot Pollard. LaFrentz led the team in
scoring (13.4 ppg) and rebounding (8.2 rpg), while Pollard led
the team in field goal percentage (56.4) and blocked shots (84).
Together, they form one of the country's most talented duos down
on the blocks.
"The key to our season is not playing any games like we did
against Syracuse," says Haase. "We just need to maintain a
consistent level of play and we'll be O.K."
Sounds like an approach that will work.
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Roy Williams
Career record: 213-56 (eight seasons)
Record at Kansas: 213-56 (eight seasons)
1995-96 record: 29-5 (final ranking: fifth)
Big Eight record: 12-2 (first)
PG *Jacque Vaughn, 6'1", Sr.
Most likely out till December with wrist injury
SG *Jerod Haase, 6'3", Sr.
3.6 apg, second among Big Eight off-guards
SF *Paul Pierce, 6'6", Soph.
Needs to improve 60.6% free throw shooting
PF *Raef LaFrentz, 6'11", Jr.
Second in Big Eight in shooting (54.3%)
C *Scot Pollard, 6'10", Sr.
Needs 79 more points for 1,000 in career
Dec. 4 vs. Cincinnati (at Chicago)
First major test comes in season's sixth game
Dec. 7 at UCLA
Bruins seek to avenge last season's 15-point loss
Jan. 6 vs. Texas
Matchup of favorites in two Big 12 divisions
Feb. 9 at Iowa State
Rematch of Big Eight title game (56-55 Kansas loss)
Feb. 22 vs. Kansas State
Jayhawks were only team to sweep Wildcats last year
PLAYER TO WATCH
Before last season, Kansas coach Roy Williams was critical of
senior forward B.J. Williams for his lackadaisical summer
conditioning habits. By the end of last season, Williams was
named the Jayhawks' most-improved player. The 6'8" Wichita
native put up personal bests in points (4.8 per game), rebounds
(3.9) and shooting percentage (67.3), and turned in a career
night--18 points and nine rebounds--in Kansas's 83-81 win over
Arizona in the West Regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
But the numbers don't paint the full portrait of Williams's
impact on the Jayhawks. He is Kansas's sixth man and one of the
best defenders coming off the bench in the Big 12. "The last
half of the year, B.J. probably played the best basketball of
his life," says his coach. "I expect that trend to continue this
season. We certainly need him."