Vaughn-less Jayhawks find top form Pierce, Robertson step up for No. 1 Kansas


CHICAGO -- The way the Kansas players have it figured, this is what the Jayhawks would have looked like had point guard Jacque Vaughn decided to make himself eligible for the NBA draft after his junior year. The way Kansas coach Roy Williams has it figured, he still had some pretty good players left in the program.

The hard part for the top-ranked Jayhawks hasn't been playing without Vaughn, who returned to Lawrence for his senior year but has been out since September with torn ligaments in his right wrist. What will be more difficult for Williams and his team is adapting to Vaughn's return next month.

"My biggest concern is getting Jacque back to 100 percent, but my second biggest concern is reshuffling the lineup once he gets back," Williams said earlier this week. "The positive thing is that we're going to get a great player back and that everyone respects him so much."

These days, the respect is growing for the rest of the Kansas team as well. Without Vaughn, the top-ranked Jayhawks are 6-0 going into tomorrow's game against 17th-ranked UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. They have played six games against all types of competition in all types of settings.

But the results have been the same.

The most recent victory came here Wednesday night, when Kansas overcame a 14-point deficit early in the second half to beat fourth-ranked Cincinnati, 72-65, in the Great Eight Festival at the United Center. Coming against the brawny Bearcats, the win proved something to Williams and his critics.

"I'm tired of hearing that we're soft," Williams said of a reputation that has followed the Jayhawks through many of their NCAA Tournament defeats, particularly last year's loss to Syracuse in the West Regional final. "We were a soft team in the first half tonight, but we got more aggressive in the second half."

Helped by the foul trouble that sent Cincinnati All-American Danny Fortson to the bench for more than six minutes early in the second half -- a stretch during which Kansas went on an 18-2 run -- the Jayhawks continue to show they have many ways to win. Against the Bearcats, they did it by getting the ball in the hands of sophomore forward Paul Pierce.

Pierce, considered a top prospect coming out of high school, had been reluctant to take over games during his freshman year. But Vaughn's injury has forced Pierce to look at the basket more, whether it means pulling up for short jump shots or taking the ball down the lane for rim-shaking dunks.

"I prepared myself last spring for Jacque not being back," said Pierce, who scored 17 points and pulled down seven rebounds against Cincinnati. "I knew I had to step up. I knew we had seniors who were going to be vocal leaders, but I had to lead by example."

Regardless of how much emotional leadership seniors Scot Pollard and Jerod Haase provide in Vaughn's absence, regardless of the wondrous things Pierce can do on the court, the Jayhawks still needed someone to take over the ball-handling and defensive responsibilities that Vaughn has handled for most of his career.

Those responsibilities have fallen mostly to sophomore Ryan Robertson. A high school star in St. Charles, Mo., Robertson came to Kansas having broken Jason Kidd's national prep career record for combined points and assists. Having played sparingly as a freshman, Robertson was thrust into the starting lineup -- and the spotlight -- when Vaughn was injured in a preseason pickup game.

Robertson knows he doesn't have Vaughn's experience, or his quickness, but is doing an admirable job.

"I'm not taking it all on my shoulders if we win or lose," said Robertson, who had eight points, four assists and no turnovers in 35 minutes against Cincinnati. "My role is to make sure we don't turn the ball over 20 times a game and we get good shots. If I do that, we'll be OK."

Said Williams: "That was the key to the [Cincinnati] game. We've been averaging 20 turnovers a game against teams who aren't pressing us, but Ryan helped us get shots."

Robertson said the biggest difference is not the way the Jayhawks have played without Vaughn, but the way they have played in comparison to recent seasons. They are no longer settling for the three when they can drive -- for example, Pierce faked a jumper against Cincinnati and swooped down the lane for a one-handed dunk.

"We've got a veteran team," said Robertson, who will likely back up both at the point and at shooting guard behind Haase once Vaughn returns. "We've played in a lot of big games. It'll be great to have Jacque back, but we're not going to fold up waiting for him."


Just the way they had it figured.

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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