They were part of two rich recruiting pipelines Roy Williams had developed in his first decade at Kansas. Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich had followed Raef LaFrentz from Iowa. Drew Gooden was the latest in a line of Californians that began with Adonis Jordan and eventually included Paul Pierce, Scot Pollard and Jacque Vaughn.
Together, they were going to bring the Jayhawks back to the national spotlight that had begun to fade in Lawrence with two straight second-round defeats in the NCAA tournament. And, they hoped, they were going to help restore the faith that Williams had in running his program the way his mentor, Dean Smith, had done at North Carolina.
The coach knew it was going to be difficult.
The players thought it was going to be easy.
"When we signed, they were coming off a bunch of 30-win seasons," Collison recalled last week. "That's the way we thought it was going to be every year at Kansas. We didn't realize how hard it was going to be."
Said Gooden: "We thought it was going to fall in our laps."
It didn't. After going through a difficult stretch as freshmen and ending a 24-10 season with another second-round exit from the NCAA tournament, after a trying week that summer when Williams flirted with returning to coach the Tar Heels after Bill Guthridge retired, after a more successful but no less satisfying 26-7 season a year ago, the Jayhawks are back.
When Kansas (33-3) plays Maryland (30-4) at this year's Final Four on Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Jayhawks will be making their first appearance in the national semifinals since 1993. There are many reasons why Kansas has one of its best seasons ever under Williams, but most point to its junior class.
"For me, the junior class has been sensational," Williams said after his team's 104-86 victory Sunday over second seed Oregon in the Midwest Regional final in Madison, Wis. "They've been as good as leaders as we've had. They renewed my faith in college basketball recruiting. I appreciate that more than they'll ever know."
At the time the three players signed, Williams had lost out on some more highly-touted high school stars and had watched a number of former blue-chippers, most notably center Eric Chenowith, fail to develop. He had taken two controversial transfers, Lester Earl from LSU and Luke Axtell from Texas, neither of whom played up to his reputation.
Playing as a freshman behind the 7-foot Chenowith, then a sophomore, Gooden considered transferring.
"I remember talking to Kirk on the bench during one game we weren't playing and both of us were like, `Let's get out of here,' " recalled Gooden. "We had such a different type of team, and the guys who were supposed to be the leaders weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing."
It wasn't all the fault of the team's upperclassmen. With the exception of Collison, who started 33 of 34 games as a freshman, that year's freshman class wasn't ready, either physically or mentally, for the rigors of playing a national nonconference schedule and in such a tough league as the Big 12.
Gooden was still undisciplined.
Hinrich was still scrawny.
"Things didn't go very well," recalled Hinrich. "We had to improve ourselves on and off the court."
In the past two years, Hinrich would see his point production nearly triple to a shade under 16 points a game while becoming a player most at Kansas consider to be the team's best perimeter defender and its emotional leader.
Gooden would become a star, having led the Jayhawks in scoring and rebounding the past two years and the Big 12 this season while being named its player of the year and a first-team All-American.
And Collison would continue to play his blue-collar role, leading the team in blocked shots and field-goal percentage the past two years while taking on the defensive responsibilities of stopping the opponent's best inside scorer.
"A lot depends on how those guys play," said freshman point guard Aaron Miles.
Was there ever a chance that the juniors would resent the expanded playing time for Miles, reserve guard Keith Langford and reserve forward Wayne Simien, who as a group have exceeded expectations?
"It was never an issue," said Hinrich, whose ankle injury has allowed Langford to play a big role.
In their team's victory over Oregon, Collison and Gooden led the way. Collison, a 6-9, 250-pound forward, finished with 25 points and 15 rebounds. Gooden, a 6-10, 230-pound center, scored 18 points and pulled down 20 rebounds. Hinrich, still hampered by a sprained ankle, scored 15.
Just as a group of talented freshmen had helped beat Illinois in the regional semifinals Friday night - "They won the game," said Collison - it was the junior class that led the Jayhawks to the first 16-0 season in Big 12 history and ultimately to Atlanta.
"Those kids have played a big part," Bob Frederick, who retired as the school's athletic director last June, had said before the game. "They have helped Roy feel a lot better about the whole deal."
The feeling is mutual.
"I wouldn't be the player I am without Coach Williams," said Gooden, who was the Most Outstanding Player in the Midwest Regional. "Things have worked out great."