ROCK CHALK, JAYHAWK
After a season in which it traveled down the yellow brick road to the national championship, Kansas got hit by a twister. In the seven months between upsetting Oklahoma in the finals of the NCAA tournament and the start of this season, the Jayhawks endured a string of losses. Their coach, Larry Brown, left for the pros; their best player, Danny Manning, became the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft; and, worst of all, they lost the chance to defend their title when the NCAA put them on three years' probation for recruiting violations. "If I had to describe my college career in two words, they would be roller coaster," says point guard Kevin Pritchard.
Those words might also describe Kansas's performance last week. After beating SMU in overtime on Jan. 9, the Jayhawks were upset by Miami three nights later and then defeated Kansas State 75-74 in OT on Saturday behind senior forward Milt Newton's 21 points. Still, for most of this season, the ride has been straight up. At week's end Kansas was 14-2 and outscoring its opponents by 22 points a game, despite having only nine players on scholarship—four others are ineligible as Proposition 48 victims or transfers—and having only three players taller than 6'6�".
Brown's replacement is 38-year-old Roy Williams, who came from North Carolina, where he had been an assistant for 10 years, the first eight as a part-timer. In Manning's stead is 6'9" sophomore forward Mark Randall, who had an 18.1-point scoring average after Saturday. Randall redshirted last year to undergo extensive surgery on his lower jaw, which had grown so long it was interfering with his bite and his breathing. He now smiles as serenely as he plays.
Because the Jayhawks won't be allowed to play in the NCAA tournament, they're treating each regular-season game like a last stand. For instance, in a 115-45 blowout of Brown on Jan. 3, they were still diving under the scorers' table during the clock's last ticks.
Six members of Kansas's 1987-88 championship team are back this season, and they have used their woes as rallying points. Pritchard, who was scoring 14.7 points a game at week's end, thought briefly about sitting out as a red-shirt because of the one-year NCAA-tournament ban. "The day we found out about probation I wondered whether we would pack it in," says Pritchard. "Then I looked around, and I knew we wouldn't. We're basketball players. We compete."
Senior guard Scooter Barry (7.5 points per game) wants to win for Williams. "I fell as bad for Coach Williams as I did for us," says Barry. "He comes in trying to show what he can do, and he starts out behind the block."
Williams was impressed with what he found. "They have pride, and they compete. I guaran-dadgum-tee it," he says. Beneath Williams's folksy dadgums and doggones is a precise planner who schedules his days down to the minute. "Frighteningly organized," says Wichita State coach Eddie Fogler, who was an assistant with Williams for eight years at North Carolina.
Williams turned down offers from four other Division I schools before signing a four-year dcal, at $78,000 per year, to become the Jayhawks' seventh coach in 90 years. A number of better-known candidates, including Gary Williams of Ohio State, passed on the job, at least in part because of the possibility of NCAA sanctions. The hiring of the little-known Williams bothered some Kansas partisans. Williams was unfazed. "I've been too lucky to stop being lucky now," he says.
The Jayhawks, who are playing more loosely and running more often than they did under Brown, are benefiting from Williams's style. Randall, who usually provides the finishing touch on the break, guarded Manning in practice last season, and he's almost matching Manning's output, shooting 66% and averaging 7.3 rebounds. "We've been having a great time," he says—with a grin.