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Greatest College Basketball Teams:  Spotlight 1997 Kansas

The 1997 Kansas Jayhawks basketball team went 34-2.  The Jayhawks ended the 1996-97 season ranked number one in the country, but the Jayhawks lost in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament to eventual champion Arizona, 85-82.  That devastating loss and the NCAA Championship that should have been seem like all Kansas fans remember about this great team.  After the season was over, coach Roy Williams said "It's almost as if people want you to apologize, and I'm not going to do that.  We went 34-2 last year, and each of the six seniors got his degree.  Now if that's not enough, then I'm in the wrong profession."

Kansas went 29-5 in 1995-96 and had all five starters returning for the 1996-97 season.  A few days before the start of the 1996-97 season, Kansas coach Roy Williams stood in front of 500 Kansas boosters and said "I know each one of you wants Kansas to win a national championship this year, but I promise that if you combined the desire of all of you, it wouldn't match the desire in my little finger.  It ain't even close."

The 1997 Kansas Jayhawks had it all.  Roy Williams was a fantastic coach and the Jayhawks had top talent at every position.  

The leading scorer was 6'11" junior power forward Raef LaFrentz.  He averaged 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.  LaFrentz was recruited by Roy Williams out of Monona, Iowa.  LaFrentz was a McDonald's All-American and a conference champion swimmer in High School.  

"He's definitely got a competitive streak," coach Roy Williams said of LaFrentz.  "I like beating people," LaFrentz said.  "I just don't like to let someone beat me."  When asked where his competitive drive came from, LaFrentz said, "My old man.  He's got a mean streak like nobody else."

At Kansas, LaFrentz was a first team All-American in 1997 and in 1998.  Although not a great defender, LaFrentz could battle for points under the basket or step out and nail the unstoppable 10-foot turnaround jumper.  At the end of his four years, he ranked second all-time at Kansas in career points 2,066 and rebounds 1,186.  Only superstar Danny Manning had more points and rebounds.  

LaFrentz was the third pick in the first round of the 1998 NBA draft.  In the first 10 years of his NBA career, LaFrentz averaged 10.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.

The second leading scorer for Kansas in 1997 was sophomore swingman Paul Pierce (16.3 pts., 6.8 reb., 46.5% 3FG).  Williams recruited Pierce out of Los Angeles, California.  Pierce was a McDonald's High School All-American.  

As a sophomore in 1997, Pierce was inconsistent.  Sometimes he would disappear and other times he would take over games.  At the beginning of his junior season in 1998, Pierce acknowledged his shortcomings in 1997.  "Last year I sat back and let the older guys decide the outcome of games.  This year I won't be afraid to take the big shot."  He wasn't.  Pierce averaged 20.4 points and 6.7 rebounds and was named an All-American his junior year.

Leaving school early, Pierce was the 10th pick in the first round of the 1998 NBA draft.  Nicknamed "The Truth", Pierce has had an outstanding NBA career.  In his first 11 years, he is averaging 22.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.  He is a seven time NBA All-Star, led the NBA in scoring in 1992 and was the MVP of the NBA Championship when he led the Boston Celtics to victory in 2008.

Senior shooting guard Jerod Haase averaged 12.0 points and 3.7 rebounds for the 1997 Jayhawks.  Haase started his college career at the University of California and transferred to Kansas to play for Roy Williams.  Haase started every 99 of the 101 games Kansas played while he was there.  

Haase was a great defensive player.  He was named to the Big Eight All-Defensive team his junior year.  He had a ton of grit.  He played a large part of the 1997 season with a broken wrist.  

At the conclusion of the 1997 regular season, Haase told Kansas coach Roy Williams "You've been like a father to me."  After his college career, Haase went on to become an assistant basketball coach at North Carolina under Williams.

Senior center Scot Pollard, standing 6'11", was the character of the 1997 Kansas team.  Pollard painted his fingernails and grew mutton chops.  "I consider myself ossiferous," Pollard once told reporters.  "I had to look it up," teammate Jacque Vaughn said.  "Ossiferous means full of bones."  Scot's 180 degrees different from me," coach Williams said.  "He's about as flaky as the day is long.  But I can't talk about him without smiling."  Pollard played high school basketball in San Diego, California and Kennewick, Washington.  At the conclusion of his Kansas career, Pollard ranked second all time at Kansas in blocked shots with 218.

Pollard was the 19th pick in the first round of the 1997 NBA draft.  He averaged 4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in his 11-year NBA career.

Senior point guard Jacque Vaughn averaged 10.2 points and 6.2 assists per game for the 1997 Jayhawks.  Vaughn was a McDonald's High School All-American.  He was a tremendous passer and excellent defender.  When he graduated, he was the all-time Kansas leader in assists with 804.  'The toughest guy to guard in basketball is the dribbler,' said Iowa State's coach, Tim Floyd, 'but Vaughn can do it because he has great footwork and great balance.'  Iowa State was a top ten team for most of the 1997 season, but had the misfortune of playing Kansas three times and losing all three.  Offensively, Vaughn was very fast and could penetrate and score. 

Vaughn was an great student as well as a great basketball player.  He was twice named an Academic All-American.

Vaughn was the 27th pick in the 1997 NBA draft.  In his first twelve years in the NBA, Vaughn has averaged 4.5 points and 2.5 assists per game.

The 1997 Jayhawks had a great bench as well.  Junior Billy Thomas (7.7 pts., 1.8 reb., 41% 3FG) and sophomore Ryan Robertson (4.5 pts., 1.5 reb., 41.4% 3FG) could come in and make three-pointers.  Senior B.J. Williams (2.8 pts., 3.9 reb.) and sophomore T.J. Pugh (3.6 pts., 2.1 reb.) could come in and provide rebounding help.  Thomas briefly held the Kansas record for career three-pointers with 269 and he played three years in the NBA.  Robertson was a McDonald's High School All-American and played in one NBA game, scoring five points. 

Kansas was 21-0 before they faced their first real test of the 1996-97 season.  Center Scot Pollard was out with a broken foot.  In a home game against Nebraska, the Cornhuskers managed to force overtime.  Roy Williams described what happened next.  'The players huddled up on the floor and Raef [LaFrentz] just says 'Give me the damn ball.'  Then he goes out and scores 11 points in overtime and we win.  Now that's a competitor.'  LaFrentz ended the game with 20 points and 10 rebounds. 

Three days later, still without Pollard, Kansas lost a heartbreaker to Missouri in double-overtime 96-94 despite LaFrentz scoring 26 points and pulling down 16 rebounds.  With the score tied at 94-94 and five seconds left in the second overtime, Jacque Vaughn knocked the ball loose from Missouri's Tyron Lee.  Missouri's Corey Tate picked up the loose ball and nailed a 15-footer to give Missouri the win.  Vaughn ended the game with 19 points and 9 assists and Jerod Haase added 20 points, but Missouri won.

The Missouri game would be the only Kansas loss until the NCAA Tournament.  By the time the NCAA Tournament started, Kansas had amassed a 32-1 record and beaten nine top-20 teams.

In the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks started with an easy win over Jackson State, 78-64.  Kansas was simply too big and strong inside for Jackson State.  'Their size affected us rebound-wise and around the basket,' Jackson State's coach said.  Paul Pierce had 19 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks, Raef LaFrentz had 18 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks and Scot Pollard had 12 points, 19 rebounds and six blocks.

In the second round, Kansas beat Purdue, 75-61.  Kansas held Purdue to a dismal 25 percent from the field in the first half and built up a 36-26 lead at halftime.  Purdue made 11 of its first 16 shots to start the second half.  With ten minutes left in the game, Purdue's Chad Austin made two free throws to give Purdue a 53-52 lead.  Jacque Vaughn immediately answered with a three-pointer from the top of the key, to put Kansas on top 55-53.  After that, Kansas pulled away, outscoring the Boilermakers 20-8.  Pierce led the Jayhawks with 20 points and 12 rebounds.  LaFrentz had 18 points and 11 rebounds and Jacque Vaughn had 12 points and 9 assists.

In the Sweet 16, top ranked Kansas faced 15th ranked Arizona.  Arizona had finished fifth in the Pac Ten.  Kansas was heavily favored.  'The thing I loved all week long was their attitude,' Arizona coach Lute Olson said of his young Arizona team's preparation for the big game.  'It was like, 'You think we're in awe of them?  We're not in awe of anybody.'

Kansas scored first on a shot by Jerod Haase.  Arizona then reeled off ten unanswered points resulting from five Kansas turnovers.  After spotting Arizona a 10-2 lead, Kansas slowly clawed their way back into the game.  The Jayhawks trailed only 38-36 at halftime. 

The game remained close for most of the second half.  Then, with the score 64-62, Arizona went on a 11-0 run thanks in part to two turnovers by the usually sure-handed Jacque Vaughn.  Arizona's Mike Bibby started the run with a three-pointer.  Arizona's Miles Simon hit another three-pointer. Arizona's Michael Dickerson hit a shot from the baseline to run the score up to 72-62.  Bibby capped the run with another three-pointer.  All of the sudden, Kansas was losing 75-62 with only 3:29 remaining.

Kansas didn't give up.  'With the shooters we have, we never feel we're out of a ballgame,' Raef LaFrentz said.  A Paul Pierce dunk and a quick three-pointer by Ryan Robertson cut the Arizona lead to 75-67 with 2:34 remaining. 

With 1:01 left, Kansas had the ball, trailing 79-73.   Billy Thomas nailed a three-pointer to cut the Arizona lead to three, 79-76.  Mike Bibby answered with a two-pointer to bring the Arizona lead to 81-76.  Thomas hit another three to cut the Arizona lead to two, 81-79.  Kansas then fouled Arizona's Jason Terry.  He made both free throws to give Arizona an 83-79 lead.

With 21 seconds left, Ryan Robertson hit a three-pointer to cut the Arizona lead to one, 83-82.  The Jayhawks quickly fouled Mike Bibby, who hit two free throws to extend the Arizona lead to 85-82 with 18 seconds left.  Kansas brought the ball down the court.  Thomas bombed a three, but it bounced off the rim.  Vaughn got the ball at the top of the key and hesitated.  He passed off to Robertson, who missed an off-balance three.  LaFrentz pulled down the rebound with three seconds left, dribbled beyond the arc and took a final three-pointer.  It bounced off the front of the rim and the 1997 Kansas basketball season was over.

Arizona went on to win the 1997 NCAA Championship.  'It's certainly not difficult to see why Kansas was No. 1 all year long, the way they battled back,' Arizona's coach Lute Olson said.  Paul Pierce led the Jayhawks with 27 points and 11 rebounds.  Scott Pollard, who averaged 10.3 points per game, went 0 for 1 with zero points.  Jerod Haase, who averaged 12 points per game but was playing with a broken wrist, went 1 for 3 with two points.  The Jayhawks turned the ball over 20 times.

'Life isn't necessarily fair,' Kansas coach Roy Williams said after the game.  'We had a fantastic, fantastic year.  It's been a dream season, but we did not reach our ultimate goal.' 

The players from the 1997 Kansas team still remember the loss.  'It was definitely a tough loss,' Paul Pierce said. 

'It will be the most painful basketball loss or feeling I'll ever have,' Ryan Robertson said in 2007.  'I have very fond memories of playing [at Kansas], but that game pretty much overshadows everything.' 

'I'm still not over it,' Jerod Haase recently said.  'That's something that always will haunt me.'

Name             Pos Class  Pts  Reb  Ast
Raef LaFrentz    F/C  JR   18.5  9.3  0.7
Paul Pierce       F   SO   16.3  6.8  2.1
Jerod Haase       G   SR   12.0  3.7  3.1
Scot Pollard      C   SR   10.3  8.3  0.7
Jacque Vaughn     G   SR   10.2  2.4  6.2
Billy Thomas     G/F  JR    7.7  1.8  0.8
Ryan Robertson    G   SO    4.5  1.5  2.8
T. J. Pugh       F/C  SO    3.6  2.1  0.2
B.J. Williams     F   SR    2.8  3.9  0.6
Nick Bradford    G/F  FR    2.3  1.3  0.7

How would the 1997 Kansas Jayhawks team do against the greatest teams of all time?

The 1997 Kansas Jayhawks had four starters that have played more than a decade in the NBA:  Pierce, LaFrentz, Vaughn and Pollard.  Paul Pierce is an NBA superstar and Raef LaFrentz is a very solid NBA player.  Roy Williams has gone on to coach North Carolina and is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in college basketball history.  The 97 Kansas team could score inside and outside, they could rebound, they had a great ball handler and floor general in Jacque Vaughn and they played very good defense.  The 1997  Kansas team could hold its own against anybody.

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