If we all agree that the big Eight is the nation's toughest conference, worthy of six spots in the NCAA tournament—no matter what happens in the league's own tournament this weekend in Kansas City—then what in the name of Dr. James Naismith are we to make of Kansas? The unselfish, semianonymous Jayhawks won the regular-season title by an astounding three games. On Sunday they put the final touches on the championship with a marvelous 97-89 home court victory over Missouri.
The game was a classic example of a great—well, pretty darned good—team overcoming a great player. With significant contributions from 10 of the 12 players deployed by coach Roy Williams, Kansas withstood a 43-point outburst by Tiger guard Anthony Peeler, who made 16 of 28 shots, including five of nine from three-point range. And the thing was, the Jayhawks played excellent defense against Peeler, a smooth 6'4" senior southpaw, sometimes sending two men flying in his direction. To what end? Swish, swish, swish.
"I wasn't even thinking about it," said Peeler afterward. "I just pulled up and shot the ball instead of trying to go one-on-one."
"Seemed like he was unconscious," said Alonzo Jamison, Kansas's 6'6" defensive specialist, who checked Peeler for most of the game. "He got this glare in his eyes. I feel pretty drained."
"I caught him after the game," said Williams, "and I told him that, in my 10 years as an assistant at North Carolina and my four years here, that was as good a performance as I had ever seen."
And the Kansas-Mizzou matchup made for as entertaining a game as you're likely to see. It also typified the way the Jayhawks play. They don't have a player who can dominate a game from the outside, the way Peeler can, or from the inside, the way Byron Houston of Oklahoma State, the Big Eight's third powerhouse, can. Kansas's leading scorer is a transfer from Northwestern, of all places, but the Jayhawks have the AJ boys—Jamison and point guard Adonis Jordan—and a formidable cast in reserve.
"I'd rather play on a team like ours than on one like Missouri's," said Jordan, a 5'11" junior. "Before the game we talked about controlling Peeler. But on our team any of the starting five can give you 20 points."
Going into the season, anybody picking Kansas to win the Big Eight should have been packed off to a funny farm, considering that the Jayhawks had lost three starters from a team that went all the way to the NCAA championship game before bowing to Duke. But if Williams was expecting the insatiable Jayhawk fans to cut him and his players any slack this season, he was dissuaded during the parade that the city of Lawrence gave the team upon its return from the Final Four. "I bet I heard 10 different fans yelling stuff like, 'Don't worry, Coach, we'll get 'em next year in Minneapolis [site of this year's Final Four],' " said Williams as he was unwinding in his office late Sunday evening. "It's great to coach at a place where people care so much about basketball, but sometimes the expectations can be so unrealistic that you don't enjoy things as much as you should."
So that's why Williams was still coaching after the final buzzer on Sunday. As soon as the hugging was done, he shooed everyone off the floor so that his four seniors could accept the 1992 Big Eight championship trophy and cut the nets. Although the Jayhawks had clinched the title on March 4, despite losing at Iowa State on that date, Williams was upset that his players had seemingly backed into the title. "I wanted them to have a chance to celebrate," he said. "It's hard to celebrate when you've just had a poor effort, as we did at Iowa State. I wanted them to know what they've accomplished, which is so much that it's hard for them to even grasp."
It would have been too bad if Kansas had turned out to be the mediocre team it might have been, because as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the invention of basketball, it's comforting to know that the game is still played as well, and appreciated as much, in Lawrence as it is anywhere else in the country. The Kansas tradition is so rich that Williams was seen wiping away tears when the Jayhawks' 1952 NCAA champions were honored at a recent banquet. It couldn't have helped that North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who almost single-handedly prodded Kansas into hiring Williams, was a reserve on that team, which was coached by the legendary Forrest (Phog) Allen.