Sunday, April 6, 2003

Williams gets another shot



By Jim Litke
The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS - It feels more and more like his. Like all the suffering Roy Williams endured will end in another day, with his second shot to get the one win that will validate all the others.

Kansas 94, Marquette 61 was the fourth-biggest blowout in Final Four history, and after the last few weeks Williams has had, it's hard to argue he didn't deserve at least one laugher somewhere along the road to the national championship game.

Not only did his Jayhawks have to recover from a 3-3 start in the regular season, there was grueling round-robin play in the Big 12 to climb into the NCAA tournament. Once there, they had to go through Duke and Arizona just to reach Saturday night's semifinal.

Williams may have it tougher still.

The former North Carolina player and assistant under Dean Smith has been besieged with questions about returning to coach at his alma mater.

Any worries all that parrying would wear out the coach or distract his players dissolved just six minutes into the game. Tied at 12, and still without the benefit of a single point from senior stars Nick Collison or Kirk Hinrich, the Jayhawks began pulling away steadily with crisp passing, sharp shooting and a tough defense. Most important, theirs was kind of decision-making that distinguishes a mature team playing in the biggest game of the season.

Not that Williams' teams always played that way.

"With each and every team, you have dreams about what they can accomplish," he said.

But too often, Williams' reach exceeded his grasp.

He came in after Kansas' 1988 national title game, and despite being hamstrung by sanctions spilling over from Larry Brown's tenure, took the Jayhawks back to that title game three seasons later and lost to Duke. The lofty expectations that created have haunted him ever since.

Williams' teams have topped the polls, won conference titles, and now have reached the Final Four for the fourth time. But they never responded to the pressure this well before.

Afterward, one by one, his players said they knew this time would be different and Williams seem the least surprised of all. He was mildly shocked to learn his team bookended halftime with 18-4 runs on either side.

"I'm one of those guys who never looks at the scoreboard. I try to focus on how we're playing," he said. "But heading into the locker room, I looked up under those temporary stands and caught a glimpse. When I saw 59-30, it just confirmed my impression that we played pretty well in the first half."

In many ways, this Kansas team mirrors the Maryland squad that rewarded long-suffering Gary Williams with his first title just last season.

Like these Jayhawks, those Terps were in the Final Four for a second consecutive season. Like the Jayhawks, they returned senior leadership in Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter. Like the Jayhawks, the Terps blended the experience of veterans and the hunger of rookies.

But there were few novices in this Jayhawks lineup. Four of the five starters played in last year's Final Four, and Collison and Hinrich often functioned like extensions of Williams on the floor. Both returned to Kansas one more year not just to improve their NBA standing, but to get their coach the championship they feel he deserves.

Distractions or not, they weren't about to cut anybody any slack.

"We've been playing all season, we've had a hundred-something practices, done conditioning, run line drills and so when you get to this point," Collison said, "you better just focus on the game. Everything else is extra and doesn't really get to us."

Williams said much the same thing in public over and over this week, every time questions about the North Carolina job came up. The truth is that he and his team may well have faced their toughest moment four months ago in the loss at Oregon that dropped the Jayhawks to 3-3.

"A lot of teams that started out poorly would have started blaming other people, the coach, their teammates," Collison said. "We took the responsibility ourselves to change it."

Williams held a film session after that game and showed his players they were taking shots too early in each possession.

"I emphasized to the kids it wasn't because they were selfish. What it was, was each kid saying, 'Hey, we're in bad shape, I've got to do something.' I tried to stress to them it's not 'I've got to do something.' It's 'We've got to do something.' After that, everybody understood their part a little better and we started getting better shots.' "

Kansas did shoot an impressive 54 percent for the game -compared to Marquette's abysmal 31 percent - but they won the hustle battles, too. The Jayhawks had more rebounds, more points in the paint and plenty more points off the fast break - all of them indications that every part in the machine Williams has patiently been assembling for 15 seasons is humming like never before.

---

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org




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