Unity keeps Jayhawks focused on big picture Kansas stays on win track despite 3 serious injuries

March 13, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As a high-schooler, Ryan Robertson broke Jason Kidd's national record for combined career points and assists. As a freshman guard at Kansas, he played while Jerod Haase fought a terrible shooting slump. When Jacque Vaughn was unavailable at the start of this season, Robertson ran the point and the Jayhawks went 11-0.

Now Robertson is on the bench for close to 30 minutes a game, and the fact that a player with his resume isn't grumbling speaks volumes about the mind-set that Kansas (32-1) takes into the NCAA tournament.

"Credit Coach [Roy] Williams," Robertson said. "He recruits good people before basketball ability. He looks at the basketball ability, and if you're a good person, that's the player he's going to go after. That's why it's so special being on this team. That's why we mix so well, why our chemistry is so fantastic."

Compared with Kansas, the Three Musketeers were riddled with dissension. The top-ranked Jayhawks open play in the Southeast Regional against Jackson State today with a unified quest.

Robertson, who amassed 2,751 points and 1,166 assists during an outrageous prep career in Missouri, is one of the few Jayhawk regulars from the heartland. There's still a touch of Appalachia in Williams' speech and four of his starters come from California, but while they come from different points on the compass, they're all headed in the same direction.

Kansas scores with talent and resilience. Everything is supposed to fall right for No. 1, but how did the Jayhawks keep on going through three serious injuries?

Scot Pollard, the senior center, broke a bone in his foot Jan. 22 and missed eight games. B.J. Williams filled that vacancy, and Raef LaFrentz assumed a greater workload, elevating his game to All-American level. Haase broke a bone in his shooting hand in the opener at Santa Clara Nov. 22, but kept playing.

The biggest challenge to the lineup was the earliest. Vaughn tore a ligament in his right wrist in a pick-up game last September. He didn't return until Dec. 30, and Robertson was at the point in wins over California, Virginia, Cincinnati and UCLA.

"If there were any questions about this team at the start of the season, they centered on me," Robertson said. "I'll be honest, I was a little scared, but then I started to realize that I've got some of the best players in the country with me, and as long as I don't screw it up, we're going to be in the game."

Robertson's playing time has steadily dropped over the last two months, but he said he has no complaints.

"Even though I was taking over for Jacque, I always knew it was on a temporary basis," Robertson said. "He's an All-American, he's won a hundred games at the point, and I've won 10. I consider myself a fairly bright person. I knew how good Jacque was, and I knew he was going to have a great senior year."

Haase and Vaughn are both Academic All-Americans, but they don't have the best grade point average on the team. Robertson, a business administration major, carries a 3.8 GPA.

"We'll be on a plane, and I'll mention that my GPA is the highest, and you can hear the shouts starting," Robertson said. "We're competitive about everything."

Robertson turned down offers from the likes of Arkansas and Kentucky to commit to Kansas two years ago, even though Haase and Vaughn had just finished their sophomore years and weren't going anywhere. When players of his caliber are coming off the bench with a smile, it's the sign of a national championship team.

"We haven't had many times this year when everyone was healthy," Williams said, "but we're a better team because of the injuries."

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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