If a college basketball coach can't be upbeat before his players have played a single game, he's bound to be despondent when they actually run up against hostile crowds, tight zones and dumb calls. Hence Kansas coach Roy Williams tried to put the best face on things after learning that his All-America point guard, senior Jacque Vaughn, had fallen in a September pickup game, suffering ligament damage in his right wrist, and would miss two months of the season.
"At my first press conference I didn't want to be 'Woe is we,' " says Williams. So he went into full spin cycle. He said that Vaughn's backup, 6'5" sophomore Ryan Robertson, would grow up quickly as Kansas played six of its first seven games on the road. And that Vaughn would have fresher legs come tournament time. And that without Vaughn spearheading the Kansas press and breaking down defenses off the dribble, the Jayhawks would develop a new way to play—which could become plan B if an opponent were to, say, sit back in a zone, as Syracuse did last March while Kansas shot itself out of the West Regional final.
Realists figured that the Jayhawks, without their Vaughnted attack, would be lucky to go 5-2 as they opened the season with an 18-day stretch that included 13 nights in hotels and one on a plane. They would fly to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, then go up against preseason No. 1 Cincinnati in the Great Eight in Chicago and, finally, meet UCLA in Pauley Pavilion. Optimists hoped for 6-1. But not even the most sanguine Jayhawks fan could have envisioned the team sweeping LSU, Cal and Virginia to earn the laurel lei in Hawaii, coming back from 16 points down to beat Cincy 72-65 on Dec. 4 and racing out to a 54-26 lead in a 96-83 coast past UCLA last Saturday. Mix into those highlights victories over a couple of other California teams—Santa Clara and, in Kansas's only home appearance thus far, San Diego—and the Jayhawks emerged from their odyssey unbeaten at 7-0 and ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. Meanwhile, such prognosticators' pets as the Bruins, the Bearcats, Kentucky and Utah had already accumulated six losses among them.
Several things account for the Jayhawks' fast start. In each of the last two seasons Kansas has exited the NCAAs with a miserable shooting performance, and last season's team was Williams's worst-shooting squad ever, going a percussive 45.4% from the field and 32.6% from beyond the arc. The loudest of that group was guard Jerod Haase, who clanged an inglorious nine three-point attempts in the Syracuse loss. This season the Jayhawks are shooting 48.0%, and Haase is shooting 55.0%, having needed seven games to launch nine treys, four of which he bottomed out. Perhaps it's simply because Williams has remembered the advice of former Jayhawks coach Phog Allen, whose gravestone he religiously touches during his regular jogs around Lawrence ("The knees are the only springs in the body," Allen used to say, "so bend them!"), and has passed it on to his shooters. But more likely the Jayhawks are shooting better simply because they're taking better shots.
Meanwhile, forward Paul Pierce, one of six Californians at Kansas, has been demonstrating the truth of Al McGuire's observation that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. Last season Pierce would flash at some moments, fade at others. But last week he delivered two circus slams and a three-pointer during the 18-2 run early in the second half that turned the Cincinnati game around.
The most unexpectedly consistent contributor, though, has been Robertson, who is so boyish that he makes Doogie Howser look like Marcus Welby. Robertson looked even more underage a year ago, before he gained 15 pounds with a rigorous lifting regimen and a diet of putrid weight-gain shakes. Robertson had worn number 11 ever since he first picked up a ball in the second grade, but upon arriving in Lawrence last year he had to switch (to 4) because Vaughn wears 11, and, as Robertson says, "there's no taking number 11 from Jacque Vaughn at Kansas." Robertson calls Vaughn his "quarterback coach" because of all the advice and support Vaughn has unselfishly offered.
Robertson's style of play makes for a slower tempo than Vaughn's; more than one referee has come up to Vaughn after a game this season to say he hadn't gotten nearly the workout he remembered from a Kansas game a year earlier. But Robertson, who set a national high school record for combined points and assists during his career at St. Charles (Mo.) West High, has been no less effective than Vaughn. Under Cincinnati's pressure he coughed up the ball only once in 35 minutes, and against UCLA he committed only two turnovers in 38 minutes while dishing out every kind of assist imaginable—alley-oop pass, shovel in transition, whip to the wing.
A passer who knows that his pass will lead to a basket is sometimes even cockier than a shooter who knows his shot will drop. In the first half against UCLA, after throwing an inbounds pass from the baseline to swingman Billy Thomas in his favorite spot beyond the arc, Robertson started running downcourt, confident that the sweet-shooting junior would make the three. Thomas did, sinking one of his four treys on the afternoon. Thomas dials long distance from 913 area code, read the official play-by-play note on another three.
Like the UCLA stat crew, Kansas center Scot Pollard has a sense of humor. But he also has a sense of drama—he proposed to his girlfriend, Mindy Camp, in front of 16,000 people at the Jayhawks' opening practice—and a sense of style. You might find him turned out in painted fingernails, wearing a black beret or, as he was last week, sporting close-cropped mutton chops.
"I'm thinking of growing a chin strap next," says the 6'11" Pollard, who later says he considers himself "ossiferous."