DOROTHY AND TOTO MUST HAVE BEEN very confused. The Jayhawks had crossed a state line to travel to their first- and second-round NCAA tournament site, but Omaha sure looked a lot like Kansas. With both KU and archrival Kansas State playing at the same site, each within a three-hour drive from its campus, the Qwest Center might as well have been in Topeka for all the Sunflower State pride in the building.
Much to the delight of the KU faithful, only one of the schools survived weekend play—and it wasn't K-State. Though the 11th-seeded Wildcats upset No. 6 USC in the first round, they lost to Wisconsin in round 2, while the top-seeded Jayhawks cruised to victories over No. 16 Portland State and No. 8 UNLV. After losing to K-State in Manhattan for the first time in 24 years on Jan. 30, Kansas regained a firm hold on the rivalry's upper hand, watching the Wildcats' season end and bringing bragging rights back to the I-70 corridor.
Buoyed by the large, wildly supportive crowd, the Jayhawks kept to their short rotation of players on the court. Last year's eight-deep became seven this season, with Julian Wright bolting Lawrence for the NBA, but Kansas benefited from its players having more clearly defined roles. "The chemistry's probably a little better," said Jayhawks coach Bill Self. "Guys know their minutes and exactly where they're going to come from." It is, in fact, about the deepest, most-balanced seven-man squad in the nation, each member of which led the team in scoring at least once during the season.
Kansas enjoyed an obvious advantage in size, speed, experience and, well, pretty much everything over Big Sky champion Portland State. In the first half Mario Chalmers, Sherron Collins and Brandon Rush were a combined 8 of 13 on three-pointers ("Yeah, we were kind of hot," said Chalmers), and one third of KU's scoring came near the basket; in the second half, when the outside shooters were just 4 of 12, the Jayhawks attacked the basket more, scoring 50% of their points inside the paint en route to an 85-61 win.
It took only a roster sheet, rather than a detailed scouting report, to see that Kansas enjoyed a considerable size advantage over UNLV, whose tallest starter, 6' 7" Joe Darger, is a scrawny perimeter player. But the Runnin' Rebels kept driving to the hole and drawing fouls. UNLV guard Wink Adams didn't hit a jump shot but had 25 points on five layups and 15 of 17 free throw shooting. Self switched to a smaller lineup, and the Jayhawks' versatility made the difference. Collins and Russell Robinson had 10 second-half points apiece as Kansas routed UNLV after the intermission to win 75-56 and move on to Detroit for the Midwest Regional.
It's been a blissful year for KU, which not only won its first basketball national title in 20 years but also reveled in a resurgent football team that went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. With the Jayhawks' first two games never really in doubt, it was fitting that one of the loudest cheers from the opening weekend at the Qwest Center occurred when the big screen in the arena flashed a shot of football coach Mark Mangino along with the accompanying CBS graphic highlighting Kansas's status as the school with the nation's best combined football and basketball winning percentage.
The new frontier isn't so much Omaha as it is the Jayhawks' place among the two-sport powers. Yes, Toto, this is the new Kansas.