As the progeny of four teachers—one of whom, Judy Collison, taught her son in a sixth-grade sex-ed class—the boys didn't escape their mothers' influence, either. "The importance of preparation is something you pick up in a house full of teachers," Dave Collison points out. Accountability, too: After Kirk Hinrich's high school team lost three of its first four games in his senior year, he sentenced himself to hours of jump shots after a five-hour overnight trip from Waterloo. (As if to prove it wasn't his own Waterloo, Hinrich then led Sioux City West to its first state title.) Likewise, Collison was pumping iron at 7 a.m. the day after his first loss in an organized game, at the state tournament in his sophomore year. He scored just three points and fouled out of that game, and each day thereafter he'd remind himself of the feeling by tapping the offending stat sheet he had tacked up on his bedroom wall. It worked: Over his last two years Iowa Falls went 52-0.
Iowa hoopheads can only ponder the possibilities. What if Iowa State coach Tim Floyd hadn't left for the Bulls and Iowa's Tom Davis hadn't been a lame duck the same year, just as C&H were finalizing their college plans? "We would've been pretty good, wouldn't we?" Floyd says, his voice betraying a hint of wistful-ness at the thought of coaching Hinrich (who orally committed to Floyd after his sophomore year) and Collison (who was considering both Ames and Iowa City). "Normally, big guys are your projects, but in Nick's case you knew when he was a senior in high school that he'd be a terrific college player. Since Kirk was physically underdeveloped, he was the guy we were projecting on." In fact, Floyd says, he was merely hoping Hinrich might become as useful as departing Cyclones guard Jacy Holloway.
Instead, Williams spirited away Iowa's finest to Lawrence, just as he'd done five years earlier with Raef LaFrentz. By season's end Williams was starting three freshmen—Collison, Hinrich and Drew Gooden—for the first time in his career. "When Kirk and I got to Kansas, you could tell we had played together," says Collison, who had logged more than 60 games with Hinrich over two summers on the Iowa Martin Brothers AAU team. "If he passed into the post, I knew when and where he was going to cut." Living together wasn't so harmonious. "Nick was a slob," Hinrich cracks. "He'd eat a sandwich and just leave part of it on the couch. I'd say, 'I'm not gonna clean up after him,' so it would sit there for a week."
Despite a pickup game smack-down or two, the friendship between Collison (whom teammates have dubbed Big Sloppy) and Hinrich (whom opposing fans taunt for his resemblance to Harry Potter) has never gone stale, though the two players found their own living arrangements last year. "They're really different," their coach says. "Kirk is much more serious. He'll still laugh, but he's so possessed at times that it's hard for him to enjoy what he's doing. Nick is driven, but not to the extent that he can't see the big picture and enjoy life a little more." Yet while Collison is undeniably eclectic—his gigantic DVD stash ranges from Menace II Society to Zoolander to When Harry Met Sally—Hinrich isn't nearly as quiet as he'd have you think. When the Antlers, Missouri's hard-core pranksters, began calling Hinrich's cellphone last summer, he played along, trading barbs for the better part of two days. (Only then did he get his number switched.)
Naturally, C&H listen far more intently to Williams, who convinced his stars early on of the need to build on their fundamental base. For Hinrich that meant almost never playing five-on-five in the summer, not in camps, leagues or pickup. "Every spring I sit down with my players and discuss what they need to improve during the off-season," Williams says, "and Kirk has bought into that more than any other player I've ever coached." Asked to hone his outside shot, Hinrich toiled alone in Sioux City for two months, then set a Big 12 record for three-point percentage in his sophomore year. The next summer he focused on weight training, then used his added strength as a junior to lock down taller small forwards such as Missouri's Kareem Rush.
For his part, Collison has progressed by competing against older players, starting in middle school (when he would spend evenings at the Ellsworth Community College gym) and continuing through five summers as a member of seven USA Basketball teams, culminating in his selection as the only college player on last summer's world championships squad. Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson, an assistant coach for that team, has suggested that the U.S. perhaps would have been better off had Collison (an alternate who wasn't on the active roster) actually played in Indianapolis.
Rest assured, unlike some NBA players, Collison will never turn down a call from his country. Credit his late grandfather, Arden, an Army tail gunner whose plane was shot down during World War II. The only survivor, Arden rushed into the fiery wreckage in an attempt to save his crew, only to suffer nearly fatal burns. "Basically, he lost his face," Nick says. "Whenever I feel like basketball is too hard, I think about some of the stuff he went through for his country." When Arden died last fall, a paper that Nick had written about his grandfather's life was read at the funeral. In addition to keeping the flag from the casket and the shells from his grandfather's 10-gun salute, Nick still writes AC on his shoes to honor the man who commanded that he never, ever showboat on the court.
Not that he doesn't have reason. With Gooden's departure to the pros, both Collison (15.6 points and 8.3 boards per game last season) and Hinrich (14.8 points and 5.0 assists) figure to spike their averages upward. The one stat they'd like to see go down is fouls. Defying their thinking-man reps, Collison and Hinrich are more fond of the DQ than Mark Cuban, having fouled out a combined 30 times over the past three years. (Collison leads, 16-14.) "Nick commits silly fouls," says Jayhawks assistant Joe Holladay, "while Kirk's are usually mad fouls." They'll need to stay on the court this season, because Kansas has almost no depth beyond what may be the nation's most feared starting five (with three sophomores, point guard Aaron Miles, swingman Keith Lang-ford and power forward Wayne Simien).
Both Collison and Hinrich realize that unfinished business remains after last year's Final Four loss to Maryland. For now, though, about the only other showdown that would get them as hyped up as the one on Jan. 25 in Lawrence (when the Jayhawks host Arizona) would be Sioux City West '99 versus Iowa Falls '99, state 4A champ versus state 2A champ, Kirk and Jim Hinrich versus Nick and Dave Collison. "We both know it would have been a tough game," Collison says of the grudge match that Iowa's class system prevented from ever taking place. Then his voice turns to a whisper. "But I think we would've won," he says, his grin as sly as a Times Square watch-hawker's. "Too many fundamentals."