Jayhawks picked No. 1 in Big 12

Monday, November 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) _ Roy Williams is especially flattered people are picking Kansas to win this year's Big 12 championship.

``I truly believe the Big 12 will be the best it's ever been, from top to bottom,'' he said. ``I think there'll be some very strong teams on a national picture. But I also believe that from top to bottom, it will be the best it's ever been.''

Reasons abound to believe Kansas will thrive.

The Jayhawks, who edged Missouri in both the media and coaches' preseason polls, return what amounts to four starters from a 26-7 team. Inconsistent center Eric Chenowith and four-year starter Kenny Gregory, a 6-foot-4 swingman, are all that's gone from a team ranked No. 7 in the preseason poll.

The trio Williams likes to call ``the Three Stooges'', guard Kirk Hinrich and forwards Drew Gooden and Nick Collison are juniors now and figure to blend experience with the talent that made them all standouts as freshmen.

Speaking of freshmen, Kansas has an incoming class whose talent and impact could rival the Collison-Gooden-Hinrich group. Guards Jeff Hawkins and Aaron Miles and forwards Wayne Simien and Keith Lankford could see plenty of action before the season is far along.

Miles, a 6-0 ball-handling wizard from Portland, Ore., may even challenge Hinrich as starting point guard.

``We expect them to come in and do good things for us,'' Williams said. ``We're going to push them a lot early to see who can handle the most.''

In leadership and talent, Miles is being compared with former All-Big Eight point guard Jacque Vaughn.

``He was a fantastic leader at the high school level,'' Williams said. ``But I've seen fantastic leaders at high school get here and be star-struck. Asking a freshman to step in and do that immediately is hard.''

Of course, there is no way to predict with 100 percent accuracy how well any freshman will adjust to college life and competition.

``I'm looking forward to seeing how the freshmen do with an intensity level that they've never played at before,'' Williams said.

``That's always the biggest shock, seeing how difficult it is day-by-day and then you have to come back and do it again the next day.''

The best asset the talented freshmen have will be the experienced upperclassmen for them to lean on.

``We have to do a lot of teaching,'' Williams said. ``We have four starters plus Jeff Carey who have had a significant amount of playing time in our program. So there is a wide knowledge of experience there. Practice has been a little bit difficult. You have all those veterans but you don't want to lose the underclassmen so you want to go slow.''

If the Jayhawks are going places this year, the 6-foot-10 Gooden will need to start reaching the potential Williams has always felt he owned. As a sophomore, he had 10 double-doubles while averaging almost 16 points and nine rebounds. But he was not always consistent.

``Drew was 160 degrees away from his freshman year as far as his play last year and his consistency and his consistency of effort,'' Williams said. ``I think we'll get another huge change again this year. He's more confident, knows what he can do.''

Gooden has been as impressed as anyone else with the newcomers.

``It is almost amazing how fast some are picking up our defensive calls and offensive plays,'' he said. '' I remember when I got here as a freshman, it was like a whole different world to me. They are coming in showing a lot of maturity and picking up things and that is bringing a lot to our team.''