They have spent the first eight games of the season looking for ways to lose, falling behind early or falling apart late in many of them. As hard as they try, and they might be trying too hard, the Kansas Jayhawks want to distance themselves from that night last March when they went from No. 1 to just plain numb.
The Kansas team that will come into the new MCI Center in Washington this afternoon to play Maryland in the opening round of the Franklin National Bank Classic is much different from the 34-1 team that lost to Arizona in the Sweet 16 of last season's NCAA tournament. And yet these Jayhawks are very much the same.
"We still have the target on our backs," said junior forward Paul Pierce, who is expected to play today despite a sprained ankle suffered in Tuesday's win over Arizona.
The target might not be as obvious as it was last season. The Jayhawks began the season as the nation's top-ranked team and stayed there for the next 15 weeks despite losing its two stars, Jacque Vaughn and Scot Pollard, for a total of 18 games. Nor might the expectations be as great, now with Vaughn and Pollard having left Lawrence for the NBA.
But the pressure is there nonetheless. Despite nearly losing in overtime to Arizona State in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT and then blowing all but one point of a 20-point lead to fourth-ranked Arizona in last week's Great Eight Basketball Classic, Kansas is 8-0 and ranked second behind Duke in the Top 25.
"I don't think there's any less pressure than most years," said Kansas coach Roy Williams. "We're still expected to be a very good team and be in the Final Four. But last year we were expected to be even better. We were expected to win every game, to be perfect. And I think having to deal with that every day kind of wore us down."
Now Kansas is dealing with the kinds of things most college basketball teams face -- replacing players such as Vaughn and Pollard, not to mention shooting guard Jerod Haase. While Pierce and fellow senior Raef LaFrentz have stepped up to play the starring roles befitting their status as All-Americans, the rest of the Jayhawks are still struggling to find their places.
Ryan Robertson, a sophomore point guard who as a high school player in St. Louis broke Jason Kidd's national scoring record, is under the most scrutiny. It helps that Kansas went 11-0 with Robertson in the lineup when Vaughn was out with a broken wrist at the beginning of last season, and has won all 19 games Robertson has started.
"The first 11 games last year made me feel very confident that I can lead this team," said Robertson.
"If I didn't have that experience, I might not feel the way I do. But the main difference is that we're trying to work four or five new guys into the lineup and right now, we're a little immature."
It has resulted in Williams using more zone than he'd like to hide his team's defensive deficiencies.
It also has resulted in the Jayhawks racking up turnovers in bunches -- they had 27 in the win over Arizona State, and are averaging 19 a game -- and taking the kind of shots that you'd question in a Sunday morning pickup game.
Evidence to that came when freshman Kenny Gregory hoisted up an unnecessary three in the final minute of the Arizona game Tuesday at the United Center in Chicago, ultimately giving the Wildcats a chance to force overtime. The Jayhawks won, 90-87, and Gregory's layup with five seconds left was decisive.
And it has made Williams bemoan the job he has done.
"We haven't practiced very well to date, we haven't played very well to date," Williams said the day before the Arizona game. "It's probably the worst coaching job I've done since I've been here."
If anything, Williams is under more pressure than in most of his first nine years. Having the winningest program in the country this decade (228-46) is overshadowed by the tag that his teams fold in the NCAA tournament. It has been four years since the Jayhawks made the Final Four, seven since they played Duke for the championship.
Williams has said often that last year's defeat to Arizona was the most difficult of his career because it left his seniors unfulfilled. Asked how long it took for him to get over it, Williams smiled sadly.
"I'm still not," he said.
But he will keep trying to bring Kansas its first national championship since Danny Manning and a group dubbed "The Miracles" won a decade ago. He already has continued a coaching tradition that included Dr. James Naismith -- the game's founder who started the program 100 years ago; Phog Allen, who coached the 1952 NCAA championship team that included a future legend named Dean Smith.
Williams can't get too far from those reminders, since the team plays in Allen Fieldhouse on the newly dedicated Naismith Court. Nor can he get far from the rumors that he will someday return to Chapel Hill, where he served as an assistant under Smith. Smith's retirement in October brought the latest wave of whispers.
But the recent signing of longtime assistant Bill Guthridge to a long-term contract helped quell the anxiety about whether Williams would be a lame-duck coach.
"He's never mentioned anything to us," said Pierce, who along with LaFrentz passed up a chance to be an NBA lottery pick. "I think if he was going to make that decision, he would tell us what's going on. We're not thinking about what's going to happen next year. It's like everything else we do. We're taking things one day at a time."
Today it's Maryland at the MCI Center.
One more game, one more day removed from that night last March when the Jayhawks went from No. 1 to just plain numb.
Franklin National Bank Classic
Where: MCI Center, Washington.
Today's games: No. 23 Maryland vs. No. 2 Kansas, 1: 30 p.m., chs., 2, 7; George Washington vs. Penn, 4 p.m., HTS.
Tomorrow's games: Consolation, 6 p.m.; championship, 8: 30 p.m.; both games on HTS.
Pub Date: 12/07/97