Seeking storybook ending

Kansas-Marquette: The Jayhawks are in search of a title for Roy Williams, but the Golden Eagles are dangerous.

Final Four

April 05, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Even after losing a key post player, the Kansas Jayhawks never doubted they had the ability to return to college basketball's top event.

Even though they toil in the relative anonymity of Conference USA and had not participated in these surroundings in more than a quarter-century, the Marquette Golden Eagles envisioned themselves here months ago.

Something must give tonight in a Final Four matchup with no shortage of subplots.

Kansas, one of the game's more storied programs, has a first-team All-American in senior forward Nick Collison, a scrappy scorer and defender in senior guard Kirk Hinrich, and a 15-year success story in coach Roy Williams, who might not be working in Lawrence much longer.

Marquette is an underdog that refuses to talk like one and surely has not played the part.

Led by fourth-year coach Tom Crean and dynamic junior All-America guard Dwyane Wade, the Golden Eagles tore through the Midwest Regional. After eliminating No. 2 seed Pitt, 77-74, in the semifinals, Marquette destroyed top-seeded Kentucky, 83-69, behind Wade and a stout performance from fifth-year senior forward Robert Jackson, who could earn Collison-like notice with a big show this weekend.

"No question, we're the underdogs here, but we're one of the best four teams in the country, so it doesn't matter if we're underdogs or not. We got here being underdogs," said Wade, who leads the Golden Eagles in scoring and produced a rare, tournament triple double against Kentucky.

"This is the game we've been playing all our lives. You can't be intimidated by another team. We've been winning all year. They've been winning all year. We're the team no one picked to be in this position."

Until a few days ago, no one would have picked Kansas as a team in danger of losing a coaching legend. That was before North Carolina pulled the plug suddenly on Matt Doherty, who was forced out after several players threatened to transfer had he remained in Chapel Hill for a fourth season.

The whole mess has left Williams - a 1972 North Carolina graduate and a former Dean Smith assistant who replaced Larry Brown at Kansas in 1988 - in the uncomfortable position of deflecting speculation that he will return home, while he is trying to win his first national title.

Williams already has taken the Jayhawks to three Final Fours, including last year's loss to Maryland. During a year in which Kansas had to adjust to the midseason loss of sophomore forward Wayne Simien to a shoulder injury, Williams may have done his best coaching job.

"The one thing I've noticed is [the Carolina speculation] has made me concentrate even more. What it's done for me is made me focus even harder," Williams said. "When I go into that meeting room, the kids know I'm with them. They know my mind is not elsewhere. My mind has never been elsewhere. My mind is with them."

If the Jayhawks are to advance to Monday's championship game, Collison and Hinrich need to be firmly on their games, along with 6-foot-4 sophomore swingman Keith Langford. He likely will draw the assignment of trying to contain the 6-5 Wade, a scoring threat from anywhere on the floor as a shooter and a slasher.

Hinrich, point guard Aaron Miles and Langford will have to counter possibly the hottest backcourt left in the tournament.

Besides Wade, who is expected to declare early for the NBA draft and be a top five pick, the Golden Eagles have 6-1 sophomore point guard Travis Diener, who has combined timely scoring with deft ball handling throughout Marquette's run. In the tournament, Diener is averaging 15.8 points, 5.8 assists and has committed just four turnovers in 143 minutes.

Collison is the Kansas glue - tough enough to be an anchor in the post, skilled enough to hurt you on the perimeter, swift enough to be an imposing finisher in the Jayhawks' patented fast break. His battle with Jackson, who sat out last season after transferring following three years at Mississippi State, could be pivotal. Jackson, 6-9, 255, had 24 points and a season-high 15 rebounds against Kentucky.

"[Collison] is a different challenge because of his versatility. I don't know if there's a more versatile forward in college basketball right now," Crean said. "He's very good around the post, very strong. But he makes so many plays with the ball. He's constantly running. He's got great strength, great balance. He poses problems because you have to guard him all over the floor."

Sounds like Williams' appraisal of Wade, who at 6-5, 210, is the best player most of the nation is just discovering. Wade, the school's all-time leading scorer for a single season (691 points), shoots well, has a point guard's eyes, leads the team in defensive rebounds (145) and cuts to the basket with impunity.

Williams said he watched Wade's performance against Kentucky - 29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and a handful of impressive dunks - with a sense of awe.

"I'm not letting my team watch the Marquette-Kentucky game, because it was scary and it provided me with some nightmares. I don't need any more nightmares," said Williams, who conjured up images of another Tar Heel. A guy named Jordan.

"I looked a couple of times to make sure it was still No. 3 I was watching and not No. 23. Wade was sensational in that game. He's a powerful guard. I don't know that in our league [the Big 12], we've played anybody that jumps out at me that I would say was like him."

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