It would not be totally accurate to say that the current Kansas basketball team—the one that has created excitement in Lawrence, produced fascination in Topeka and, naturally, made everything up to date in Kansas City—does everything wrong. But it would be close. For, among the affronts to their glorious tradition and storied history in the game, the Jayhawks start a center at forward, a forward at guard and a guard at the other forward. They also play two 6'10" men who, forgetting their size and limited mobility, are ordered to press all over on defense. And, in a final, blatant rejection of all Kansas shibboleths, they run. Get it? A team that in the past always featured those big, slow, ploddy people who had been rescued off the hay wagons and coaxed out of the silos, Kansas now actually runs.
This in itself might have been enough to force the school's first coach to send down a decree from his peach basket in the sky, disowning Kansas and the game, since, after all, his name was Naismith and he invented it. But there is much more.
Kansas is led by a left-handed baseball pitcher, a trumpet player and a guy discovered by a stranger on a train; the team is captained by a foot-stompin', finger-poppin' soul brother named Pierre; and it is coached by a self-confessed "very conservative, very religious, staid person," who nevertheless has a long history of ulcers plus a spouse who says she is "the only coach's wife in the United States who paints nudes."
This is a team for Middle America? Well, yes. Despite all of their transgressions against everything held dear by culturists of the sport, the Jayhawks have put their sundry parts together and somehow come up with a record through last weekend of 20-1. They are also undefeated in the Big Eight Conference, an achievement of unspectacular note to those who do not realize that road trips to Big Eight country are just that, six-hour busrides. Moreover, only one Big Eight team has ever gone through a conference season unbeaten—possibly because most everybody in sight holds the ball. Or, in the words of one native of the area, "They possess it long enough to make you want to eat nails."
The tendency toward possession basketball is a legacy of Oklahoma State's Henry Iba, who, through all his years of establishing another legend in the Midlands, enjoyed only shared glory because of the domination of Kansas. That supremacy had its beginnings with a man named Forrest Allen.
Among his accomplishments during his 39 years at Lawrence, Phog Allen listed all or part of 24 conference titles, three NCAA finalists, an NCAA championship and the extraordinary feat of winning 71 games in one season (while coaching Kansas and two other college teams simultaneously). Long before anyone figured out what generation gap meant, Allen had—32 years apart—coached Adolph Rupp and recruited Wilt Chamberlain. By 1956, when Allen was forced to retire at 70, he had ramrodded the conference into its finest decade.
In the 1950s the league (then known as the Big Seven) sent six representatives to the NCAA championship round, four of them making the final game. In the past 10 years, however, the Big Eight has had only one team in the final playoffs—true grist for those detractors of Kansas' record so far this season. Except for Kansas and Kansas State, all Big Eight teams play in antiquated and cramped arenas where it is impossible to show a profit after sandwiching in burgeoning student bodies at cut rates. This has been a low blow to recruiting.
Still, as a measure of Kansas' improvement in the Big Eight over last season—when the Jayhawks lost six of their seven road games and finished second to K-State—the team's victory margin is 14 points better. Moreover, though certain reviewers judge Kansas' schedule to be suspect, the Jayhawks have beaten three well-considered teams decisively ( Houston, Long Beach and Georgia Tech) and their only loss came on the road against Louisville, which has turned out to be a major power in its own right.
" Kansas is better disciplined and a better team than most," says Oklahoma City's Abe Lemons, "but their league will destroy them. Everybody stalls and packs around. Kansas is not free and easy like you have to be."
This comes as no surprise to Ted Owens, the Jayhawks' bright young coach, who, nonetheless, would opt for mean and brutal over free and easy. While Owens has built his team in the image of those past Kansas aggregations whose every effort was concerned with getting the ball inside and jamming it down people's throats (the current starters all weigh over 200 pounds and average 6'6"), he also has taught them a clawing, full-court zone-and-man press that gets opponents out of the delay game in a hurry. The Jayhawk frontcourt of Dave Robisch, Roger Brown and Pierre Russell has played together, on and off, for three years and is one of the most fearsome physical trios on any campus. Since Russell is only 6'4" and a natural guard, Owens has 6'5" Bud Stall-worth around to shoot outside and crash the boards himself when needed.