Cincinnati lost a Hall of Fame All-American after three years of frustration, then won two college basketball titles in a row. So why can't Kansas wave off two All-Americans and make a hard charge for an NCAA crown next spring? It can.
Duke, Connecticut, Kentucky, Stanford and other powerhouses will also be in the hunt. But KU is by no means dead simply because Raef LaFrentz has finished his senior season and Paul Pierce left after his junior campaign.
A Jayhawk lineup with rookie Jeff Boschee, senior Ryan Robertson, sophomores Eric Chenowith and Kenny Gregory and senior T.J. Pugh or junior Lester Earl won't exactly be a sacrificial lamb. There'll be other helpers such as rookie Jeff Carey, junior Nick Bradford, new signee John Crider and perhaps Jelani Janisse. Coach Roy Williams is in the hunt for still more able bodies, ideally big, quick strong ones who can shoot the ball.
Kansas was knocked out of this year's NCAA meet by a lack of only three things: one-pointers, two-pointers and three-pointers. That's the same combination that eliminated other touted title-contenders such as Arizona and North Carolina from the Final Four mix. Carolina's Shammond Williams and Arizona's Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson couldn't find the hoop. Kansas was far too timid at shoot-out time and fell to Rhode Island.
The consensus among some able analysts I know is that Kansas `98 was weak at the ``two'' (shooting guard) and ``five'' spots when it counted most. Billy Thomas's erratic golden touch took disappearing potion; Chenowith and Earl weren't equal to the test when T.J. Pugh couldn't set the house on fire.
If Boschee, the North Dakotan, is as adept as reported at point guard, Robertson could go to the shooting spot where he could exert a lot more offensive influence. Gregory, Pugh, Chenowith and Earl have a lot of growing up to do before next October yet all are capable of doing so. It depends on how badly they want success.
Several observers have opined that Chenowith needs to toughen up mentally. Certainly he showed at times he could measure up during the LaFrentz absence. But strong improvement is needed and new guys must contribute in a hurry. Still, Kansas won't be any basket case.
Bear in mind KU lost five great seniors after 1952 -- Lovellette, Kenney, Hougland, Lienhard and Keller -- and a football injury nixed Olympian Charlie Hoag. Yet Kansas finished only a point short of Indiana in the 1953 title game. There were Phog Allen's beloved Bandy-Legged Gamecocks, B.H. Born, Al Kelley, Dean Kelley, Hal Patterson, Gil Reich and some Dean named Smith. Only the 6-9 Born stood taller than 6-1, yet they damned near did it. No sympathy notes for the people Williams will have available for `99.
Cincinnati had the one and only ``Big O,'' Oscar Robertson, in 1958-59-60 with a solid supporting cast, but couldn't grab the brass ring. Ohio State featuring sophomores Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek won in 1960 and many conceded the next two titles to the Buckeyes. Forget that ``other'' Ohio school, especially with Robertson gone.
But Cincy's Ed Jucker molded a great role-playing group from shuffling, knock-kneed Paul Hogue; Tom Thacker, playing forward at 6-2; burly 6-4 Bob Wisenhahn who looked more like Ernest Borgnine than a basketeer; journeyman guard Carl Bouldin; and Air Force veteran Tony Yates who for three years was perhaps the most underappreciated quarterback any great team ever had.
Cincy and Ohio State met for the national title in `61 and `62 and Cincy won both times. The Bearcats would have beaten Chicago Loyola in `63, too, if they'd cashed in one more free throw in overtime. Loyola had near-divine luck that night.
Point is, teams like Kansas and Cincinnati proved early on that you could lose stars and still be a major force. Ryan Robertson says that without LaFrentz and Pierce as their crutches, everyone else will have to step up more strongly. That could be a blessing. There's plenty of size, enough experience, scads of talent and rather substantial coaching.
And maybe stronger competition at the Big 12 level (starting with nemesis Missouri) could have KU more sharply honed and dedicated come NCAA time.
- You think money doesn't drive the NCAA basketball machine? Consider Stanford which made the Final Four for the first time since 1942 when it beat Dartmouth for the title in Kansas City.
That year, the tourney grossed about $23,500 and after expenses, paying light and water bills and such, there was $1,500 left. Half of that went to the NCAA and the other half was shared by the participating teams. Stanford and Dartmouth went home with checks for about $93 each. (Kansas and Indiana took home $100 each after their KC showdown in 1940).
Now to 1998. Stanford played five games in the tourney and since a team gets about $275,000 per outing nowadays, it claimed more than $1.5 million to be shared however the Pac 10 does it. Then the league also had clubs like Arizona and Washington bringing in the sheaves.
But $1.5 mill, give or take a few thousand, is still a far cry from $93. And to think that there was a time when then-NCAA director Walt Byers wondered if there'd ever be enough money to justify the event. He did, honest.
-- Bill Mayer's phone message number is 832-7147. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.