Four older guys will determine whether Kansas University has a good, pretty good or great basketball team in 2000-01. Unfortunately, three of KU's youngest players currently constitute the aorta of the organism when three seniors and a junior should be performing that function.
Sophomore Kirk Hinrich has the capabilities of becoming a new Ryan Robertson or even Jacque Vaughn. Soph Nick Collison could wind up in the All-America category of Raef LaFrentz before he's done. Soph Drew Gooden has every skill to become a Paul Pierce-type contributor.
There are high expectations for the Three Musketeers. Justifiably, because they are so able and deeply motivated. Yet they need big-time help from a suspect veteran contingent.
How will seniors Eric Chenowith, Kenny Gregory and Luke Axtell and junior Jeff Boschee respond to the challenge of making KU anywhere from moderate to sensational? They have the experience and, let us hope, the maturity to lead the way in rewarding coach Roy Williams for staying with them rather than going back to North Carolina.
Yet with these Final Four merely going through the motions as they sometimes did last season, KU will struggle in the Big 12 and won't get past the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Musketeers can't do it by themselves.
First off, the seven-foot Chenowith should look into his checkbook and recall that a modestly accomplished fellow giant like Greg Ostertag wound up with an astounding six-year, $39-million contract at Utah. With more overall potential, Chenowith should conclude that even if he can do half that well, he'll be able to surf, swim, attend rock concerts and relish all sorts of other frivolities quite handsomely during and after a pro career.
Time for Chenowith to take off the party tuxedo, roll up his sleeves and reward KU with some of that McDonald's All-American promise. If that means absorbing some bumps, cuts, bruises and pain from asserting himself in the paint, so be it. Eric can show his appreciation to Williams for believing in him and his teammates by having a terrific final season while upping his ante as a high NBA draft choice and wage-earner.
The 6-5 Gregory will also enter the season with three years of seasoning under Williams. The determination needs to be made soon whether he's fish or fowl, so his athleticism can be adapted to fill the gaps in his portfolio as a basketball player. Is he a guard or a forward, or is there some other way his many gifts can be blended to overcome his shortcomings, for the good of the team? The coaches and Kenny have a lot of questions to answer for this last go-around.
Axtell at 6-10 with an alleged propensity for deadly gunnery could add loads of threats for this new Jayhawk edition. We know Luke is supposed to be able to rifle a camel through a needle from Cairo but he's never measured up to that kind of lethality at KU. If he's over his mysterious ailment, is bigger and stronger and doesn't get too hung-up on a singing-recording career, what a lift the "real Luke Axtell" could provide. KU died for want of timely firepower the past disappointing campaign. Luke's gotta get better on defense, too.
Still with firepower, will junior Jeff Boschee become consistent and measure up to his promise as a freshman? Kirk Hinrich as a point guard not only can shoot from outside but can drive, score, or dish it off. As good a shooter as Boschee had indicated he can be, why can't he do more penetrating and develop a 10- to 12-foot poke with 50 percent-or-better accuracy?
Jeff has had two full years of intensive schooling and should be primed same as Chenowith, Gregory and Axtell should be ready to deliver big-time as the elders on this club. Golly, guys, help out those youngsters. Just think how good this team CAN be.
All this amounts to a seven-man rotation and while coach Williams favors a 10-deep operation, seven have won a lot of titles at a lot of levels in college. Further, every Jayhawk in that format is capable of a big night. Three or four at once, dyn-o-mite!
It's not like a team that must live or die with a single superstar like Oscar Robertson, Pete Maravich or Danny Manning, a doubleton like LaFrentz and Pierce at Kansas, or a storied Ohio State threesome like Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried.
The 1952 NCAA champs here had a seven-man group that made the Olympic team and produced a glittering 28-3 record. If all these Jayhawks play up to their potential, the 2000-01 crew could be in that class. But again, the three seniors and junior Boschee have to shed their cocoons and become butterflies.
There could be newcomer help from 6-6 Bryant Nash from Carrollton, Tex., and walk-ons Mario Kinsey of Waco and Chris Zerbe of Andover. Veteran Jeff Carey at 6-10 could spring some surprises. But Three Musketeers and the Final Four will decide if this is a ho-hum or a gangbuster season.
It's customary to wonder whether young kids will boost a college team. At KU, the main pressure is on four veterans who must be a lot better than they were last time around.