If a college basketball coach can't be upbeat before his players
have played a single game, he's bound to be despondent when they
actually run up against hostile crowds, tight zones and dumb
calls. Hence Kansas coach Roy Williams tried to put the best
face on things after learning that his All-America point guard,
senior Jacque Vaughn, had fallen in a September pickup game,
suffering ligament damage in his right wrist, and would miss two
months of the season.
"At my first press conference I didn't want to be 'Woe is we,'"
says Williams. So he went into full spin cycle. He said that
Vaughn's backup, 6'5" sophomore Ryan Robertson, would grow up
quickly as Kansas played six of its first seven games on the
road. And that Vaughn would have fresher legs come tournament
time. And that without Vaughn spearheading the Kansas press and
breaking down defenses off the dribble, the Jayhawks would
develop a new way to play--which could become plan B if an
opponent were to, say, sit back in a zone, as Syracuse did last
March while Kansas shot itself out of the West Regional final.
Realists figured that the Jayhawks, without their Vaughnted
attack, would be lucky to go 5-2 as they opened the season with
an 18-day stretch that included 13 nights in hotels and one on a
plane. They would fly to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, then
go up against preseason No. 1 Cincinnati in the Great Eight in
Chicago and, finally, meet UCLA in Pauley Pavilion. Optimists
hoped for 6-1. But not even the most sanguine Jayhawks fan could
have envisioned the team sweeping LSU, Cal and Virginia to earn
the laurel lei in Hawaii, coming back from 16 points down to
beat Cincy 72-65 on Dec. 4 and racing out to a 54-26 lead in a
96-83 coast past UCLA last Saturday. Mix into those highlights
victories over a couple of other California teams--Santa Clara
and, in Kansas's only home appearance thus far, San Diego--and
the Jayhawks emerged from their odyssey unbeaten at 7-0 and
ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. Meanwhile, such prognosticators'
pets as the Bruins, the Bearcats, Kentucky and Utah had already
accumulated six losses among them.
Several things account for the Jayhawks' fast start. In each of
the last two seasons Kansas has exited the NCAAs with a
miserable shooting performance, and last season's team was
Williams's worst-shooting squad ever, going a percussive 45.4%
from the field and 32.6% from beyond the arc. The loudest of
that group was guard Jerod Haase, who clanged an inglorious nine
three-point attempts in the Syracuse loss. This season the
Jayhawks are shooting 48.0%, and Haase is shooting 55.0%, having
needed seven games to launch nine treys, four of which he
bottomed out. Perhaps it's simply because Williams has
remembered the advice of former Jayhawks coach Phog Allen, whose
gravestone he religiously touches during his regular jogs around
Lawrence ("The knees are the only springs in the body," Allen
used to say, "so bend them!"), and has passed it on to his
shooters. But more likely the Jayhawks are shooting better
simply because they're taking better shots.
Meanwhile, forward Paul Pierce, one of six Californians at
Kansas, has been demonstrating the truth of Al McGuire's
observation that the best thing about freshmen is that they
become sophomores. Last season Pierce would flash at some
moments, fade at others. But last week he delivered two circus
slams and a three-pointer during the 18-2 run early in the
second half that turned the Cincinnati game around.
The most unexpectedly consistent contributor, though, has been
Robertson, who is so boyish that he makes Doogie Howser look
like Marcus Welby. Robertson looked even more underage a year
ago, before he gained 15 pounds with a rigorous lifting regimen
and a diet of putrid weight-gain shakes. Robertson had worn
number 11 ever since he first picked up a ball in the second
grade, but upon arriving in Lawrence last year he had to switch
(to 4) because Vaughn wears 11, and, as Robertson says, "there's
no taking number 11 from Jacque Vaughn at Kansas." Robertson
calls Vaughn his "quarterback coach" because of all the advice
and support Vaughn has unselfishly offered.
Robertson's style of play makes for a slower tempo than
Vaughn's; more than one referee has come up to Vaughn after a
game this season to say he hadn't gotten nearly the workout he
remembered from a Kansas game a year earlier. But Robertson, who
set a national high school record for combined points and
assists during his career at St. Charles (Mo.) West High, has
been no less effective than Vaughn. Under Cincinnati's pressure
he coughed up the ball only once in 35 minutes, and against UCLA
he committed only two turnovers in 38 minutes while dishing out
every kind of assist imaginable--alley-oop pass, shovel in
transition, whip to the wing.
A passer who knows that his pass will lead to a basket is
sometimes even cockier than a shooter who knows his shot will
drop. In the first half against UCLA, after throwing an inbounds
pass from the baseline to swingman Billy Thomas in his favorite
spot beyond the arc, Robertson started running downcourt,
confident that the sweet-shooting junior would make the three.
Thomas did, sinking one of his four treys on the afternoon.
Thomas dials long distance from 913 area code, read the official
play-by-play note on another three.
Like the UCLA stat crew, Kansas center Scot Pollard has a sense
of humor. But he also has a sense of drama--he proposed to his
girlfriend, Mindy Camp, in front of 16,000 people at the
Jayhawks' opening practice--and a sense of style. You might find
him turned out in painted fingernails, wearing a black beret or,
as he was last week, sporting close-cropped mutton chops.
"I'm thinking of growing a chin strap next," says the 6'11"
Pollard, who later says he considers himself "ossiferous."
"Ossiferous," he affirms. Then he brings up his linemate, 6'11"
forward Raef LaFrentz, who went for 31 points and 11 rebounds
against UCLA: "Raef's ossiferous too."
"I had to look it up," says Vaughn, an Academic All-America and
a voracious reader who writes poetry. (Ossiferous means "full of
"Scot's 180 degrees different from me," says Williams. "He's
about as flaky as the day is long. But I can't talk about him
Even without Pollard's influence, Williams, 46, isn't nearly as
serious as he was only a few years ago. The Jayhawks' 1991
championship game loss to Duke was famously hard on him, as
was--a year later--their second-round upset by UTEP. Williams
traces his transformation to a day in the spring of 1993 when he
was coaching the U.S. national team for the Under-22 World
Championships, and the selection committee was meeting in
Chicago. A copy of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, with a cover story by
Gary Smith on cancer-stricken former North Carolina State coach
Jim Valvano (Jan. 11, 1993), beckoned from a table in Williams's
hotel suite. With an hour to kill before his meeting, Williams
read it. "One thing Jim said jumped out at me. He said he'd
always wanted to be a grandfather, and he wasn't going to be
able to do that."
Williams dutifully coached those under-22s through a qualifying
tournament in Argentina but turned the team over to George
Washington's Mike Jarvis for the tournament's final round in
Spain. "I've never heard of anyone on their deathbed who said,
'I wish I'd spent more time in the office,'" says Williams, who
since then has devoted more attention to his wife, Wanda, and
their children: Scott, now 19 and a jayvee player at North
Carolina, and Kimberly, 17.
The coach's new looseness extends to his team. Williams knows
that his players take their cues from his demeanor and that
orders given by someone who's too tight tend to get executed
that way. "I want to win more than anybody, and I've been called
Mr. Intensity," he says. "But there's supposed to be joy in the
journey, not just in reaching the destination. Even if we lose
in the round of eight, they're still great kids, and I'm going
to enjoy them."
In Maui, Williams even went parasailing, dragging the Jayhawks'
72-year-old radio analyst, Max Falkenstien, along with him. Four
years ago? "I would have stayed in the hotel room," Williams says.
Because no other coach has won so many games (213) in his first
eight seasons, and because Williams has reached the Final Four
twice with no national title to show for it, some observers
regard him as the college basketball equivalent of Davis Love
III, the best golfer never to have won a major. But John Wooden
coached at UCLA for 16 years before he won his first NCAA title,
and Dean Smith went 20 years before his. We don't mention a
one-hit wonder like UCLA's Jim Harrick in the same breath as
those two just because he got his championship sooner.
Phog Allen, who didn't win his first national championship until
14 years after the NCAA tournament began in 1939, is remembered
for another homily besides that one about springy knees: "Keep
the feet warm, and you keep the nerves of the players calm."
Allen believed there was no greater threat to his team's
fortunes than literal cold feet, so he would gather his players
in front of a fireplace before games. "I never saw a man with
cold feet who wasn't nervous and jumpy," Allen used to say. The
old coach might also have meant figurative cold feet--a
reluctance to perform effectively at critical moments.
That condition may have afflicted several recent Jayhawks teams.
But the one thing visits to Maui and L.A. do is keep feet
warm--whether they're the quick ones of Vaughn or the more
deliberate ones of Robertson.