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Lack of Pressure Feels Good

March 27, 2003|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

They have arrived here together, Kansas and Duke, part of an NCAA West Regional field that looks more like a Final Four than part of the Sweet 16.

And for once, neither one of this pair of the game's grandest programs carries the weight of national championship expectations.

That's left to Kentucky and Arizona, and the lightened load seems to feel good to the second-seeded Jayhawks (27-7) and third-seeded Blue Devils (26-6), who meet in a regional semifinal game tonight at the Arrowhead Pond.

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski bantered with a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, telling him he didn't know what picayune meant, but he hoped only to advance far enough to get more questions from him.

Kansas Coach Roy Williams -- who somehow managed to invoke a supermodel in his latest attempt to downplay any hope he will become a candidate for the UCLA job -- also turned his wit toward Duke, his rival when he was an assistant at North Carolina.

"I do consider Duke to be a four-letter word, but is it D-U, or D-O-O-K?" Williams said. "Duke was the first college campus I was ever on. I don't want to start giggling, but I was on the square dance team at the Duke folk festival."

All the banter aside, Kansas and Duke are preparing for what should be a scintillating display of up-and-down basketball.

"I think they advance the ball better than anybody in the country, and they have two of the top 10 players in the country in Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich," said Krzyzewski, who tried to recruit Collison to Duke and failed. Now he calls Collison flat-out "the best player in the country."

Kansas faces a Duke team that said goodbye to Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy but found itself late in the season in time to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament behind freshman guard J.J. Redick, a deadeye shooter, sophomore guard Daniel Ewing and senior Dahntay Jones.

"With us being underdogs, it's different for us," junior guard Chris Duhon said. "It's definitely put a chip on our shoulder.

"I don't think anybody's rooting for us except the guys in the locker room, which is fine."

Unlike other years -- last year, for example, when defending champion Duke was upset by Indiana in the Sweet 16 -- neither Duke nor Kansas is facing failure if they don't reach the Final Four, even though Kansas started the season ranked No. 2 in the nation and Duke was briefly No. 1.

"We have had a difficult year in many ways," Williams said. "Last year, we were 16-0 in league and won 33 games.

"This year, we started 3-3 and bounced back. We lost Wayne Simien [to injury], thought we were going to get him back and lost him again. So we have had some adversity, but here we are playing in the Sweet 16."

Some years, the pressure on Kansas to finally win a title under Williams -- or the questions of whether Duke's 1999 team was among history's best -- seemed too much for these teams.

"I think it's more so a burden," Krzyzewski said when queried about certain facets of Duke's past success. "People have expected too much. The story would be to lose, not to win."

Williams wouldn't call Kansas basketball tradition any burden.

"I think it is a blessing to me, except for one thing," he said. "On Selection Sunday, you always see those teams jumping up and down when they get selected, and our team doesn't get excited.... They don't get excited, because they expect it. I've loved every day of being at the NCAAs."

And almost, but not quite, every minute.

"I'd still like to be the guy standing there that last night sometime."

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