Coach Roy Williams stood before a convocation of Jayhawks boosters on Nov. 8 and delivered a rousing sermon. "I know each one of you wants Kansas to win a national championship this year," Williams said. "But I promise that if you combined the desire of all 475 of you in this room, it wouldn't match the desire in my little finger. It ain't even close."
Although Williams may be consumed by his lust for an NCAA title, you couldn't fault the guy if he tried to douse expectations a little, especially after he nearly lost his best player—twice. On May 6. Jayhawks point guard Jacque Vaughn paraphrased Robert Frost when he said, "I will take the road less traveled," as he announced that he would be bucking the recent trend to leave school early for the NBA and instead would return to Lawrence for his senior season. Then four months later, on Sept. 10, Vaughn's road wound through the University Medical Center after he tore ligaments in his right wrist while playing in a pickup game at Allen Fieldhouse.
Vaughn, who already holds Kansas's alltime assists record, is likely to be sidelined until the New Year, and that may cost the team one or two early-season games. But there are whispers around Lawrence that the injury might be a blessing in disguise for Vaughn, who has led the Jayhawks in minutes the last two seasons and has demonstrated a tendency to wear down. It will also allow Williams to give some playing time to sophomore guard Ryan Robertson, who, when he played at St. Charles (Mo.) West High, broke the national high school record for combined points and assists held by Jason Kidd.
Of course, it hardly matters who runs the point unless Kansas finds somebody who can shoot straight. The Jayhawks shot just 45.4% from the floor and 32.6% from three-point range last season, easily the worst in Williams's eight years at Kansas. The erratic shooting eventually led to the team's undoing when Syracuse sat back in a zone and watched the Jayhawks shoot 4 for 25 from beyond the arc during a 60-57 upset in the West Regional final.
Shooting guard Jerod Haase, who's now a senior, was the worst offender on the offense, shooting a miserable 35.6%) from the floor in '95-96 (down from 43.3% the year before), capped off by an even more miserable 0-for-9 nightmare in the Syracuse loss. During the regular season Haase attempted every quick fix he could find, including a visit to a sports psychologist, but nothing helped. Already a workaholic, Haase resolved to shoot more than any other player in the country this summer, but he vows there will be no more gimmicks once the season begins. Says Haase, "One of my professors told me that if you're already in a hole, then stop digging." If Haase doesn't rediscover his range, look for Robertson, who shot 45.2% from three-point territory a year ago, to take some minutes at shooting guard once Vaughn returns.
Paul Pierce, a 6'7" sophomore forward who was the Jayhawks' second-leading scorer (11.9 points per game) last season, must also contribute more. Pierce says he is not fazed by incessant comparisons to former Kansas All-America Danny Manning, partly because he isn't exactly sure which position Manning played. Pierce is a slasher who can also hit the three-point shot, but he suffered from rookie inconsistency a year ago and sometimes played tentatively in the closing minutes of games. "Last year I sat back and let the older guys decide the outcome of games," Pierce says. "This year I won't be afraid to take the big shot."
If the perimeter players begin to score again from the outside, it should open up more elbowroom down low for 6'10" senior center Scot Pollard and for 6'11" junior forward Raef LaFrentz, who hopes to improve upon his team-leading 13.4 points and 8.2 rebounds a game. LaFrentz has admitted that he is afraid of heights, but not of high expectations. "We didn't come to Kansas to be satisfied with playing in the NCAAs," LaFrentz says. "We came here to play for a national title."
Williams won't be happy with anything less. For five years now he has taken a regular lunchtime jog to the gravesite of legendary Kansas coach Phog Allen, where he pats the headstone for inspiration. And he will continue to tell anybody who asks just how badly he wants to win a national championship. Once upon a time, Allen talked the same way, and both coaches have handled their critics with one of Allen's favorite aphorisms: If the mailman stopped for every barking dog, he'd never finish his route.