Rumors raged on sports talk radio that a chasm had developed between the juniors and seniors on the team. Jason King covers the Jayhawks for The Kansas City Star and saw the dissention building. "[Center] Nick Collison said the one thing this team is lacking is togetherness," King recalled prior to Kansas' first-round NCAA game.
Meanwhile, Kirk Hinrich, KU's sophomore point guard, said the Jayhawks were "terrible" in the Big 12 tourney. Senior Kenny Gregory blamed the team's woes on "selfishness" and said Kansas was "soft" and lacked "killer instinct."
Few Kansas fans were confident enough to pick the Jayhawks to win beyond the second round in office pools. These people had seen Williams' club lose in the second round for three consecutive years. Many scribbled "Syracuse" onto their brackets, expecting another early exit for the Hawks.
But that was last week. This week Kansas basketball is back where this tradition-rich, hoops-crazed school and its fans belong -- the Sweet 16 with dreams of making the Final Four.
Forgotten is the loss to Mizzou in Columbia. The five-game losing streak to Iowa State is yesterday's news. Talk of the Jayhawks' inability to play tough inside disappeared after KU out-rebounded Syracuse 55-19 Sunday. Not one person has even mentioned Williams' reluctance to call time-outs during the NCAA tourney. What a difference.
"Watch out now for Roy Williams and the Jayhawks," Dick Vitale, ESPN's voice and face of college basketball, said after the Hawks' most recent win. "This year's edition is playing their best basketball at the right moment. They have balance, toughness inside and can rebound. They will be a very tough out in the next round."
Rick Pitino, the former Kentucky coach who knows a little about what it takes to win an NCAA Tournament title, is so impressed with what he saw out of KU last weekend that he now thinks the team is the favorite to win the whole shebang. "This is one of the better teams I've seen in a long time," Pitino said to his CBS audience as he did color-analyst work for both KU tournament games. "They play so well together offensively and defensively."
Can a four-day trip to Dayton, Ohio, and victories over something called Cal State-Northridge and a pygmy-sized Syracuse team really mean that Kansas is back in the Final Four hunt? Absolutely. That's how fickle and wonderful the world of college basketball is.
Does that mean a loss to Illinois Friday in San Antonio would place the monkey on Coach Williams' back again? "First of all, I don't think we'll lose to Illinois," says Jim Allgood, a die-hard Kansas fan who lives in Missouri. "And even if we do lose to Illinois, getting to the Sweet 16 is great."
Rob Marshall designs homes by day and roots for the Jayhawks rain or shine. "I believe we're right where we expected our team to be this year," says Marshall. "Anything past the Sweet 16 is pure gravy."
Even Roy Williams was spotted cracking a smile during the closing moments of the win over Syracuse. "I wanted to have some fun," Williams said during the postgame press conference where he introduced the public to "Stank'em," the Hawks' new stuffed monkey mascot. This is the same guy who said he would put his team through the three most arduous practices of the season after the disappointing loss to Oklahoma. Heck, last week Oklahoma was being hailed for its toughness and grit after winning the Big 12 tourney. Today the teammates are just a bunch of has-beens who choked against Indiana State in the opening round of the only tournament that counts.
Williams has long complained that it's unfair to judge his team by what happens in March. "Enjoy the ride" has always been his message to ardent Kansas fans. But what causes you pain also can give you great joy -- only if you win your next NCAA game.