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Saturday, April 5, 2003
Updated: April 6, 5:14 AM ET

Too good to deny KU's great title chances

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN The Magazine

NEW ORLEANS -- Up by 26 with 1:29 remaining in the first half, a Kansas reserve leaned toward a teammate and said what everyone in the Superdome, including Marquette, already knew.

"This is over," he told the other Jayhawk scrub.

I'll take it a Nick Collison drop-step further: This Final Four is over. Finished. Rock chalked. The only thing left to do is to get the Jayhawks' ring sizes.

KU coach Roy Williams is 40 minutes away from deep-sixing the dreaded B.C.N.T.W.A.N.C. label -- Best Coach Never To Win A National Championship. Cold-hearted KU plays Syracuse in Monday evening's title game, not that it really matters who occupies the other sideline bench seats.

Roy Williams
Roy Williams directed a near-perfect group of Jayhawks past an overmatched Marquette.

Whoever thought the Big Easy would mean Kansas' semifinal win against freaked-out Marquette? KU didn't simply beat the Golden Eagles, it reduced them to Final Four trivia status (What team gave up the second-most first-half points in Final Four history? Ta-da -- 59, by the fellas from Milwaukee). CBS' Billy Packer was so bored he drew stick figures and played tic-tac-toe on the telestrator. And here's an unsettling thought: the EA Sports All-Stars and Central Missouri State kept it closer than Marquette did.

Syracuse and the most complete player in the country -- freshman Carmelo Anthony -- will keep it to single digits, but a loss is a loss. Kansas is too experienced, too wired for sound, too devoted to Williams. Of course, Williams will need a chamois to soak up his Monday postgame tear-fest. Williams gets misty if he sees a photo of puppies, so just think what will happen when he realizes he can take off the Final Four o-fer collar. The TVA will have to construct a dam for his tear ducts.

The scary thing is Marquette actually felt good about the KU matchup. Of the three other teams in the Final Four, there was a feeling among MU's coaches that Kansas was the program you wanted to play first. The Golden Eagles had arrived in New Orleans fresh from victories against Pittsburgh and Kentucky. They had shot well in domes, first in Indianapolis, then in Minneapolis. In short, they were feeling a bit saucy. Plus, Marquette had all that Al McGuire karma working for it.

But Kansas isn't in much of a sentimental mood. McGuire's seashells and balloons moment? KU made it seem more like coral reefs and anvils. The only soft spot the Jayhawks have is for Williams and senior starters Collison and Kirk Hinrich. Did they feel sorry for Marquette as KU stretched the lead to 43?

"Nope," said Keith Langford, who led the Jayhawks with 23 points.

"Nope," said Collison, who chipped in a double-double (12 points, 15 rebounds).

Monday's game could mark the end of Williams' 15-year career at Kansas. North Carolina needs a new coach, preferably someone who can win lots of games, not alienate Tar Heels players and their parents, and start moving some of that backlogged UNC Jordan gear off the sales shelves.

Williams can do that. The guy is so organized he actually has a student manager stationed behind the bench who hands him a cloth to clean his eyeglasses. Williams has Carolina pedigree and with a victory Monday he could honestly say he's done everything he came to do at KU.

Kansas will beat Syracuse because it has those two seniors from Iowa, one of which is consensus All-America (Collison), another of which isn't far behind. And remember, four of KU's starters played in last season's Final Four loss to Maryland. That matters. A lot.

"I do always think that if you can have experienced talent, that's better than just talent, or it's better than just experience," Williams was saying the other day.

He's right, of course. Kansas is what Maryland was in 2002: efficient, unflappable, unstoppable.

Kansas wins Monday night because it plays better defense than you realize. Just ask Marquette, which couldn't hit the side of the Superdome, thanks to KU's defense. The Golden Eagles shot 25.6 percent in the first half, 12.5 percent from the 3-point arc, and returned to their locker room after 20 minutes with stunned faces and a 29-point deficit. After that, it didn't matter.

And did you see the way the Jayhawks leave contrails in their transition game? Nobody turns a missed opponent's shot into a basket better, or quicker, than Kansas.

"Unbelievable" was the word Marquette star Dwyane Wade used to describe it.

KU made it look so easy against Marquette that you could have sworn the Jayhawks were running layup drills. The official stats showed KU with a 16-2 margin in fast-break points, but it seemed double that number.

The Jayhawks attack until you drop. They run. They feed Collison in the post until he needs to go on the Atkins diet. They dare you to stop them.

"We did not play well," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "That's an obvious statement. But they are very, very, very good."

Three verys? Isn't that another Final Four record?

Kansas will win Monday because it doesn't care who is on the other side of the bracket. Burnt orange ... Syracuse orange, doesn't matter. The Jayhawks survived the brutal West Regional, beating Duke and Arizona, among others, to reach New Orleans. They turned Marquette into a Sigma Chi intramural team. Syracuse just happens to be next.

Earlier in the week Marquette assistant coach Jeff Strohm, who knows his stuff as well anyone, said Syracuse is the most talented team here. That might be true, but Kansas has the Final Four's best sixth man.

Fate.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine



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