ST. LOUIS - Kirk Hinrich has joined Raef LaFrentz, Jerod Haase and Billy Thomas in the lore of Kansas basketball. That's not necessarily a good thing, since some of the program's recent losses in the NCAA tournament were attributed to injuries suffered by those former Jayhawks.
The badly sprained left ankle Hinrich sustained late in the first half of Thursday's 70-59 opening round win over 16th-seeded Holy Cross at the Edward Jones Dome brought back painful memories for Kansas coach Roy Williams.
It brought back images of LaFrentz, the team's leading scorer, playing with a bruised shoulder, and Haase, its best shooter, playing with a broken hand in a Sweet 16 loss to Arizona in 1997. Thomas was slowed by a leg injury in a second-round loss to Rhode Island in 1998.
If anything, the injury to Hinrich is worse, since it's doubtful the junior guard will even play for top-seeded Kansas (30-3) against eighth-seeded Stanford (20-9) in today's second-round Midwest Regional game.
Compounding the problem for Kansas is how important a player Hinrich has been for the Jayhawks this season.
`There's no question that Kirk is our most valuable player in one aspect - he can play so many spots," Williams said yesterday.
Along with junior forward Nick Collison, Hinrich is the team's second-leading scorer behind junior center Drew Gooden, the Big 12 Player of the Year. Hinrich is also its second-best three-point shooter behind senior guard Jeff Boschee and is second in assists to freshman point guard Aaron Miles.
Hinrich leads Kansas in minutes played and steals. One more thing: Hinrich would likely have been assigned to guard Stanford's top scorer, Casey Jacobsen.
"You lose your best perimeter defender, you lose the guy who makes your break go; you lose your backup point guard, and you lose a guy who can shoot and penetrate," said Williams. "It changes our team a great deal, but at the same time, they're not going to give us a three-day break and say, `Let's see if you feel better on Wednesday.' "
Williams was asked if the Jayhawks could use Hinrich's injury and possible absence as a rallying point.
"I've seen it happen before, but I've seen it happen most often when you lose one player," said Williams, whose history with key postseason injuries dates back to his days as an assistant to Dean Smith at North Carolina. "But we're losing about three out of that one. If they want to use it as a rallying point, that's fine with me."
Said Hinrich, "There is a chance [to play]. They'll have to do a lot more work on it by tomorrow. I'll be cheering for them, I'll be talking to them, stuff like that, if I'm not going to be able to get out there. I have a lot of confidence in them."
Without Hinrich, Williams will rely heavily on two freshmen: Miles and Keith Langford, both of whom had some shaky moments in the second half of the win over Holy Cross.
The Jayhawks are well aware that they will have to raise the level of their play against Stanford, which beat ninth-seeded Western Kentucky in the first round. The winner of tonight's game will advance to the Midwest Regional semifinals Friday in Madison, Wis.
"We feel like we kind of have our backs up against the wall a little bit," said Collison, who will try to erase his own painful memory, a six-turnover, four-point performance Thursday night. "We'll have to raise our game about three levels."
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said he would prepare his team as if Hinrich were playing, but added, "You don't take a guy like Hinrich out of your lineup and improve your team."
Along with Hinrich's injury, the Jayhawks will also have pressure of not losing as a No. 1 seed, something Kansas has done under Williams in 1995 (to Virginia in the regional semifinals), 1997 (to Arizona) and 1998 (to Rhode Island ). Williams took Kansas to the Final Four twice in 13 years, but not since 1993.
"It took me 33 years to get a hole-in-one, I hope it doesn't take me 33 years to get through things smoothly at the end of the year," said Williams. "It's part of the game. You can say all those cliches that you want, but it ticks you off. It makes you say, `Why me?' But it doesn't do you any good, so you might as well go on."
Said Miles, "Our fans still believe in us, but I'm sure a lot of people are doubting on us. I know the heart of this team is humongous."
This time, it's not the heart of the Jayhawks that's being questioned.
It's an ankle, a badly sprained one.