The Kansas basketball team isn't there yet -- to NCAA Final Four stature. But at least three carrots were hung on the end of the stick the past week to show the ambitious Jayhawks what they're up against if they want to finish No. 1 in America in April.
The defining moment for this KU team could be Jan. 1, 2005, when Georgia Tech visits Allen Fieldhouse. Tech knocked the Jayhawks out of the NCAA Tournament last year and has awesome potential. The Techsters have been impressive in recent television appearances. They certainly won't be any weaker by the time they ramble into town for that New Year's Day battle. Kansas has to get a lot smoother and generate much more cohesiveness and continuity to measure up.
Could be the Jayhawks won't really hit their stride until mid-January or even early February. Despite KU's wealth of promise, there's a lot to be done before the G-Tech invasion. Lotsa guys need to dig down and play the best they ever have.
Carrot No. 2 is Illinois, where coach Bill Self once held forth. Nobody is capable at this stage to say who is the collegiate best, but the Illini and G-Tech are in the hunt. Illinois seems to be a force of note. Beauty is, Illinois plays in the Big Ten and KU doesn't have to be concerned before late March. To heck with what the polls say in the meantime.
Carrot No. 3, Oklahoma State, is another matter. KU does have to deal with the veteran Cowboys here on Sunday, Feb. 27. Little wonder Kansas and OSU were picked co-favorites for the Big 12 title. OSU broke free of a terrific Syracuse team down the stretch Tuesday night and is sure to battle the Jayhawks for the regular-season title. The fact Kansas has to play the Cowboys only once could be a major blessing.
OSU coach Eddie Sutton said his club played the first half against The 'Cuse as if it never had been coached. I kept wondering if OSU ever would get in synch. The doldrums continued for a surprising spell in the second half but when the veteran Pokes finally got the scent of victory, they firmly took control.
Pollsters picked Joey Graham of OSU as a preseason all-league first-teamer, yet it was brother Stephen whom OSU more seriously recruited in the dual transfer from Central Florida. Joey did fine against Syracuse but Stephen made enough pivotal moves to prove why he originally was the pick of the litter.
OSU has seven seniors of merit, and freshman JamesOn Curry from North Carolina will help a lot. Right now, I'd guess O-State's foreign legion of transfers is better than Kansas, but it needn't stay that way. If you thought the Syracuse-OSU, No. 4 vs. 5, was hyped, imagine the attention that will be focused on the Kansas-OSU game on CBS on Feb. 27.
One good thing about that matchup is that Dick Vitale with his raspy godfather guttural commentary, which you can't understand much of the time, probably will be supplanted by Billy Packer, the Atlantic Coast huckster. Agree or disagree with Billy, at least you can decipher him over the crowd noise. Vitale needs some kind of special filtered microphone, same as Kevin Harlan, the periodically muffled K.C. Chief throat (a la Marv Albert).
Can't understand the fetish some people have about rushing somebody else into the KU starting lineup in place of Christian Moody. Sure, it'll be great to see C.J. Giles, Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson blossom and contribute more. Kansas needs all three to develop, fast, to belly up to Georgia Tech. But why begrudge Moody the playing time he's earned with feats like his 10-10? He's intelligent, consistent, gets more decisive all the time and has the height and bulk to benefit a club that has four tested seniors. Those seniors also need to erupt big-time -- sooner the better.
Remember a guy named Chris Piper, a Lawrence High product who played such a vital role in helping Kansas to the 1988 national title? Moody is no Piper yet, maybe never will be. Chris was such a subtly efficient contributor that he never got the credit he deserved. That could be Moody's fate, too. If and when the time comes, he'll willingly surrender his spot to somebody doing more things better. Mentally, Moody is the same as Chris Piper, the kind who can play a major role in a good team effort. Coach Self, who'll know when to change, is lucky to have a competent kid like this to wait with. The freshmen need to hustle to match up.¢
At last glance, Kentucky and North Carolina had won more college games than anyone -- with Kansas third, only about four games shy of Carolina. But if the Bloody Baron of the Bluegrass hadn't finagled a bit, Kansas would have been the first school to win 1,000 college basketball games.
On Feb. 3, 1969, Kansas beat Oklahoma State here 64-48 for the 1,000th victory in Jayhawk history. Should have gone into the books as a first. But UK coach Adolph Rupp, a Kansas product who loved to one-up the Jayhawks, dug up a couple games Kentucky won against some YMCA team years before. So UK laid claim to the first-to-a-thousand status. Apparently nobody ever proved otherwise (the Baron could be quite intimidating), so UK got to gloat.
"Not many things while I was at KU pained me more than that," said Ted Owens, 19-year coach, while he was here for his recent Bert Nash roast. "Everybody was up for it and felt sure we had made it. Then they came up with those YMCA ringers. Boy, that made me angry!"
Less significant but quite amusing was that during the second half of that '69 KU-OSU game, the seat of the gyrating Ted's pants ripped out. He sheepishly had to wear a towel around the waist during a postgame ceremony recognizing the Big 1,000 achievement.