Losses tough to swallow, but Kansas won't choke

With lowered expectations, Jayhawks feel less pressure

National notebook

January 22, 1999|By DON MARKUS | DON MARKUS,SUN STAFF

There is one way for Kansas to look at a season that already includes losses at Saint Louis and Massachusetts, not to mention a rare home defeat to Iowa that broke a 62-game winning streak at Allen Field House.

Nobody will be chanting "Rock, Choke, Jayhawk" at them if the Jayhawks do their now-expected cameo in the NCAA tournament. This is a season of lowered expectations in Lawrence, a season when few are paying attention to coach Roy Williams and his team.

"I said before the season that we were probably going to lose more games this year than we've had in a long time," junior guard Ryan Robertson said by telephone Tuesday. "But by the end of the season, we might be better-suited for the NCAA tournament."

The way Robertson figures, Kansas was so dependent on All-Americans Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce last season, as well as on point guard Jacque Vaughn and Scot Pollard the year before, that it was easy to shut down the Jayhawks if their stars didn't shine.

And there was so much pressure for Kansas -- a No. 1 seed three of the past four years -- that the Jayhawks knew anything less than a Final Four would be considered a failure. Kansas last went to the Final Four in 1993, losing to North Carolina in the semifinals.

"We were afraid of losing because we hadn't lost much," said Robertson, who had his own pressure last year in replacing Vaughn at point guard and is the only returning starter. "This year we'll have experienced it, so we won't get tight if the game is close."

Not that the 19th-ranked Jayhawks want to get a steady diet of defeat. Nor should they from here on out, considering their dominance (41-2) in the Big 12 the past two years. But Kansas still has much to overcome, including:

Injuries: Three Jayhawks have already undergone surgery this season. T. J. Pugh (ankle), Lester Earl (knee) and Ashonte Johnson (fractured patella) have returned but all are still limited. It has left 6-foot-6, 190-pound Nick Bradford as the power forward.

"Not only did we lose our three top scorers, and have had three surgeries, but we've been starting people who've been complementary players," Williams said yesterday from Lawrence. "And we're playing a couple of guys out of their natural position."

Freshman point guard: With Vaughn gone a year, the pressure on Jeff Boschee isn't as intense as it was on Robertson last season. Boschee is getting better -- he has scored in double figures in five straight games -- but nobody is confusing the relative unknown from North Dakota with Mike Bibby.

Ghosts: We're not talking about legends James Naismith or Phog Allen, whose names grace the court and the building in which the Jayhawks play. We're talking about the recent string of NCAA tournament disappointments, including last year's second-round loss to Rhode Island.

"My biggest challenge is this: How do you balance competitiveness with compassion and understanding?" Williams said. "I'm going to push the kids hard because the one thing you don't want to do is make excuses. The easiest thing for me is that we have really good kids and we're trying."

Et cetera

Ohio State guard Michael Redd became the third sophomore in school history to go over 1,000 points in his career, following Jimmy Jackson and Herb Williams. Evan Eschmeyer became the first visiting player to record a triple-double at Indiana's Assembly Hall when he scored 27 points, pulled down 12 rebounds and had 10 assists in Northwestern's 81-78 loss last week to the Hoosiers. One of the reasons for Washington's struggles this season is a lack of rebounding. Aside from 7-footer Todd MacCulloch, who has pulled down 161 rebounds going into last night's game at Cal, no other Husky has more than 45.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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