Coach Roy Williams still tears up when talking about his team's loss to Duke in the 1991 final in Indianapolis. Seniors Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison are still a bit miffed about the way the Blue Devils ended their freshman season in a second-round game in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"I just remember being heartbroken after the game," Hinrich recalled yesterday. "We probably played our best basketball of the year in that game. For us not to win that game was disappointing. They were the more experienced team, and that's what probably put them over the top."
Hinrich is hoping that the experience the Jayhawks have gained during the past three postseasons, including losing to Maryland in last year's national semifinals in Atlanta, will help second-seeded Kansas (27-7) when it plays third-seeded Duke (26-6) tonight in the West Regional at the Arrowhead Pond.
Top-seeded Arizona (27-3) meets No. 5 seed Notre Dame (24-9) in the first Sweet 16 game.
"It was kind of unfinished business," Hinrich said of his decision to return for his senior year. "We felt we got a taste of almost accomplishing our goal last year. I wanted to come back and give it a shot at that [winning a national championship]."
There were times this season that Hinrich and Collison, who have played together since their Amateur Athletic Union team days in Iowa during high school, felt as if they were on a whole new team. Despite their continued presence, the Jayhawks are a lot different than they were a year ago.
Wayne Simien, who was supposed to give Kansas the inside presence it lost when Drew Gooden left for the NBA after his junior year, suffered a separated shoulder in January and had surgery earlier this week.
Jeff Graves, a junior-college transfer who was going to supply the muscle needed to contend in the Big 12, came to Lawrence overweight. Graves ballooned to 293 pounds, about 40 pounds more than Williams and his coaching staff had expected.
Aaron Miles, who last year set a school record for assists as a freshman, was inconsistent, particularly earlier in the season. It contributed to the Jayhawks getting off to a slow start that included three losses in their first six games.
Then, after a 10-game winning streak, Kansas blew a 20-point lead in the second half and lost by 17 to Arizona at home.
That defeat seemed to galvanize the Jayhawks, who went out and beat Texas at home two nights later and won 12 of their next 13 games. Kansas wound up winning the Big 12 Conference - one of the best leagues this season - but lost a chance at a No. 1 seed when it lost to Missouri in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
"I really haven't asked why we weren't a No. 1 seed," Williams said yesterday. "I believe that when you get to this level you're going to play somebody that is really good regardless. Let me ask you something. How many times have you seen all those guys on the selection show agree? They all agreed that this was the toughest region."
Of the four teams here, Kansas has played the most consistent in its first two tournament games. After escaping with a 64-61 win over Utah State in the opening round in Oklahoma City, the Jayhawks crushed Arizona State, 108-76, in the second round. The game against the Sun Devils showed what Kansas does better than anybody left in the tournament.
"Kansas is probably the quickest team in the country in getting the ball up the court in transition," Duke guard Chris Duhon said yesterday. "We have to slow them down, protect our basket and not let them have any easy looks at the basket."
The Jayhawks would like to get off to a fast start against the Blue Devils, but that's where the memory of last year's semifinal defeat to Maryland comes in. Kansas jumped ahead 13-2, then went flat, falling behind by as many as 20 points before falling short in its comeback.
"Too much Juan Dixon and Chris Wilcox in the middle," Collison said yesterday, recalling the two former Maryland stars.
Collison said that the crushing loss to Maryland might play on the minds of the Jayhawks more tonight than a defeat to Duke in which only he and Hinrich played. It pushed the Kansas players last summer during workouts and all through the season.
"It was such a disappointing game," he said.
Williams can recall a litany of such postseason disappointments in his 15 seasons at Kansas. The Jayhawks lost five times as a No. 1 seed under Williams and three times as a No. 2 seed. The only time Williams has reached the championship game was against Duke in 1991.
That game started with Grant Hill dunking off a long alley-oop and ended with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski winning the first of three national championships.
"I loved our kids that day because it was a seven-, 10-, 12-point game the whole time, they kept fighting," Williams recalled. "They really hung together."
Will Williams allow his current players to use those past defeats as motivation for Duke tonight?
"It depends on how good they are," he said. "Nick and Kirk can do just about anything they want. With the younger kids, I try to get them to focus on what I want them to focus on. But this is a new year.
"We don't have the team we had last year. We don't have the team we had when those guys were freshmen. I remember Shane Battier blocking eight shots. I focus on this year's team and what we're doing right now. I think that's the only way to be successful."