At Kansas, dynamic duo shares bond, aims for ring

Best friends may make it hard on foes in Big Easy

Ncaa Tournament

College Basketball

April 02, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There was a bond between Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich long before they arrived at Kansas four years ago.

They had played together on the same AAU team in Iowa since the summer before their junior year in high school. Both had played high school basketball for their fathers. Even their fathers had played basketball at the same school, Briarcliff College in Sioux City, at different times.

"It is kind of crazy," Hinrich said last week. "It's almost as if we were linked, but we didn't even know it."

As they are about to finish their college careers at this year's Final Four, the bond has grown even tighter. They are best friends who together have shared much success as well as tremendous disappointment during their years as Jayhawks.

A year ago, Collison and Hinrich played key roles in leading Kansas to its first Final Four since 1993. The Jayhawks lost to eventual champion Maryland in last season's semifinals in Atlanta.

On Saturday, the two senior captains will try to carry Kansas at least one game further - if not all the way to the school's first championship since 1988 - when the Jayhawks meet Marquette in the first semifinal in New Orleans.

"I'm probably the luckiest coach in America," Kansas' Roy Williams said during last week's West Regional in Anaheim, Calif. "The quality they have that you love, first of all, is their ability. They're awfully doggone good.

"They're also both the sons of coaches. They've sat around the table and heard what coaches say. They understand the game. They understand the importance of making sacrifices for the good of the team."

Kansas (29-7) wouldn't be going to its second straight Final Four if not for Collison and Hinrich. Last week at Arrowhead Pond, they took turns carrying the second-seeded Jayhawks to wins over Duke and Arizona.

Collison, a 6-foot-9, 255-pound center, led Kansas to a 69-65 victory over the third-seeded Blue Devils in the regional semifinals. He finished with a career-high 33 points and 19 rebounds while Hinrich was suffering through one of his worst games, scoring just two points and shooting 1-for-9 from the field.

"In 15 years as a head coach, I've never seen anybody dominate a game as much as the way I thought Nick dominated the game last night, both inside and outside," Williams said.

Hinrich, a 6-3, 190-pound guard, redeemed himself by leading the Jayhawks to a 78-75 victory over top-seeded Arizona in the final. He scored 28 points - one short of his career high - while Collison finished with only eight points after spending a long stretch in the second half on the bench in foul trouble.

"Ever since I've played with him, I knew he had more heart and guts than anyone I've ever played with, or seen," said Collison. "He came out with a different mind-set today. At half of the Duke game, I tried to get Kirk going. I had fed off him for all these years, and I was hoping he would do the same."

Playing high school ball in different parts of the state, Collison and Hinrich met after their sophomore year when they joined Martin Brothers, an AAU team based in Waterloo. That summer, playing up an age group, the team won a national tournament against a Virginia team in Hampton Roads.

During that summer, Collison and Hinrich began talking about playing together in college. One potential glitch in their plans came when Collison was being recruited by Duke after his junior year. Collison eventually turned down an offer to become a Blue Devil for one simple reason.

"I wanted my parents to be able to see me play," said Collison, whose father, Dave, quit coaching so he could watch his son play.

It turned out to be a bit of a bittersweet decision early on. Collison, who started as a freshman and was named the team's top defensive player, suffered through a season-ending loss to Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Each year, the Jayhawks went a little further, making it to the Sweet 16 in 2001 and to the Final Four last season.

And, each year, Collison and Hinrich got a little better.

They had considered joining teammate Drew Gooden in leaving Lawrence a year early for the NBA after last season. Independently, they came to the same conclusion and returned. They will likely be first-round draft picks this June.

"Individually, I felt like I'd be in a lot better situation to come out this year," Collison said. "The biggest thing is that I didn't want to leave yet. It's a lot of fun playing at Kansas. I think a lot of guys leave early that are ready to get out of there. But I don't think Kirk and I were ready to do that. We have fun playing here, and we weren't ready to give that up."

Said Hinrich: "The reason why I came back was, one, to become a better basketball player. The other was because I felt we had unfinished business. I got a taste and we almost accomplished our goal last year. I got a little hungrier for that and wanted to come back and accomplish that."

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