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Sunday, March 3, 2002
Maybe it's perfectly OK to trust KU

By Seth Wickersham

COLUMBIA, Mo. - It's early March, and Roy Williams hasn't had to wipe away any tears, and yet it's still unnerving. Don't ask why. There's really no concrete reason to not trust this year's Kansas team.

If its stars struggle, the role players save the bacon. They play through silly mistakes that crumble other teams like a bad soufflé. If this team keeps it up, which after beating Missouri 95-92 to wrap up a perfect, 16-0 record in the Big 12 seems very, very likely, folks in Lawrence will have no idea how to act. All of a sudden, a couple of Kansas businesses that normally boom come March -- the sale of black clothing and emergency shrink hotlines -- might run dry.

Nick Collison
With Drew Gooden off his game Sunday, Nick Collison stepped up and poured in 28 points for Kansas.

That's just the problem with No. 1 Kansas. Sixteen-and-oh means a lot more in the NFL than it does in college hoops. This is a basketball program that has developed an identity as a March train wreck. (Anyone remember 1997?) It's always the best man; never the groom. How hard is it to trust Kansas? Just ask the players themselves.

Kirk Hinrich: "Can we be beat? Yes. Of course. I know that because we have been beaten."

Nick Collison: "Honestly, I wouldn't have believed we could have done this."

Williams himself: "I don't know if I'll ever enjoy this 16-0."

Too bad. But then again, Kansas could have lost to Missouri at the Hearnes Center Sunday afternoon. Williams knew it, too.

Drew Gooden, the Jayhawks' Player of the Year candidate, coughed his way into missing 12 of 17 shots and had only 8 rebounds. Gooden was so frustrated late in the game after he missed a gimme down low he threw his hands down and missed a loose ball that rolled right past his feet. "That just wasn't very smart," Williams said.

Jeff Boschee, KU's usually heady senior, was so clumsy he had three fouls in the first half. "The leading 3-point shooter in Kansas history is sitting next to me on the bench," Williams grumbled. "Jeff just wasn't playing very smart."

Then, Williams called a play for Gooden three times in a row in the second half, and not once did Hinrich get the ball to Gooden's hands. "We didn't get it close to him," he said. "There were times when we just weren't playing very & " -- Yup, you guessed it -- "smart."

Trusting Kansas? There was a moment in this game where it seemed like Kansas was serving this game to Missouri. It went 8:51 in the second half without a field goal.

But Kansas collected itself and said, Believe.

They beat a scrappy, desperate team that has twice handed KU its only Big 12 loss. Collison was 9 for 12 and led the Jayhawks with 28 points. The three players Williams pointed out for knuckleheaded play delivered when it mattered most. Gooden's tap-in with 24 seconds left put KU up by three. Boschee stole a lazy Kareem Rush pass, and he forced Tiger guard Clarence Gilbert into a leaning, no-way shot as time expired.

Then there was Hinrich, who helped force Rush, the Tigers' struggling star forward, into shooting 13 for 41 in two games against KU this year. "I had a couple that I thought could've went in," Rush said, "but they didn't fall." For Rush, a preseason All-American, it was his fourth game in his past five in which he shot under 40 percent.

It's hard to overestimate how badly Hinrich loves dominating Rush. Left off most preseason all-conference teams, Hinrich might be KU's most valuable player.

"He won't come out and say it, but he was upset that Rush got all that hype and he didn't," says KU guard Brett Ballard, who talked trash until 2 a.m. Saturday night with a prank-calling Missouri fan. "Hinrich wasn't on any lists."

All is cool now, right? Hinrich smiled, as if to say, It is now.

Trusting Kansas? It's making a tough case not to.

The Jayhawks are now 27-1 in their last 28 games, including 14 in a row. They lead the nation in scoring and field goal percentage. The 10 times KU has scored over 100 is a school record. Its shooting from the field and from downtown are its highest marks in 12 years. "We really do believe in each other," Hinrich says.

Not that it's all smooth. Late in the game, even with Hinrich giving Rush fits, Williams got nervous and switched to a zone. During a timeout, Hinrich went to Williams and got in his face.

"I can play smart."

Williams gave him a look, chewed on it, and nodded. He didn't call another zone the rest of the way.

After the game, as Hinrich stood against a wall in the Hearnes Center, he was asked if getting Williams to trust him was a tough sell.

"Sometimes," he grinned, rubbing his chin.

And trusting this year's Jayhawks? Is that a tough sell?

"Nah," he said, grinning wider than before. "Now, I don't think so."

Seth Wickersham is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.