I know this is the ultimate jinx writing this blog today of all days, but it is time to compare the two best teams of my KU era, the 96-97 team that went 34-2 and was ranked #1 all year and the year's team that has looked so dominant and who ESPN's Jay Bilas called yesterday "a machine." Both teams have great depth, veteran leadership, underclassmen studs, and great coaches. We will break it down position by position. Keep in mind this is where these guys are at that particular point in there career.
Point Guard: 96-97 Jacque Vaughn, SR., 10.2 PPG, 6.2 APG, 1.7 SPG vs. 07-08 Russell Robinson, SR., 7.3 PPG, 4.6 APG, 2.4 SPG
Both players are considered the heart and soul of their team. JV missed 10 games with an injury, and had what I would call a sub par year by his standards. He was known as "Acque" Vaughn, because he had no "J," but nobody ran Roy Williams offense better (except UNC's Raymond Felton). He was the best full court defensive guard in the country as well. Lost major points we us when he continuously passed up wide open shots at the end of the Arizona game. Not the way he wanted his career to end.
Robinson, like Vaughn, is a great defender. He is very under control and knows how to get his teammates involved. He isn't afraid to take a big shot, but knows he is usually the 5th option on the floor offensively. However, he has hit the third most three-pointers on the team. The one thing about Russ Rob we love so much is that he always seems to be in complete control.
Advantage: Vaughn - By a nose. They are very similar players, but put Jacque on this year's team where he only would have to concentrate on running the offense and playing his stifling D, and he'd be lethal.
Shooting Guard: 96-97 Jerod Haase, SR., 12.0 PPG, 36% on threes vs. 07-08 Mario Chalmers, JR., 11.9 PPG, 47% on threes, 4.9 APG, 2.7 SPG
Haase to me was one of the great overrated talents in KU history. "Mr. Floor Burns" was a solid defender and hit big threes, but his wrist injury severly hampered him late in his Senior season and he was a complete non-factor in the tournament, scoring just 11 points in three games. He was a standstill, off a screen, jump shooter who started all 36 games, despite his various injuries.
Chalmers is a dynamic talent. Bill Self calls him the "best off the ball defender" he's ever coached. He has become KU's best three-point shooter and wants the ball in his hands at the end of a close game. Mario's propensity to turn the ball over has lessoned in a big way and his handles have improved. He and Robinson are the perfect compliments to each other in the backcourt.
Advantage: Chalmers - The man is a steals machine, he shoots threes at a 47% clip, has a patented tear drop floater in the lane, and is a vocal leader on his team. Ask 100 scouts who they'd rather have on their team and 100 will take Chalmers.
Wing: 96-97 Paul Pierce, SO., 16.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 46% on threes vs. 07-08 Brandon Rush, JR., 12.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 43% on threes
Pierce is the best talent KU has had during my era. Even as a Freshman, the kid was dropping 25 on teams. He was a deadly three-point shooter, could take his player off the dribble, and had a sick mid-range game. Looking back on the stats, he was KU's leading scorer in every Big 12 and NCAA Tournament game, including 27 and 11 against Arizona in the season-ending crushing loss.
Rush is an enigma. He is coming off a torn ACL and is still not 100%. He has looked so passive at times this year, yet when Self lit him up to the media, he came back with three straight great games and showed you his brilliant talents. He is a superior defender when healthy, but he isn't 100% and can't be the lock-down guy he was last year. Rush has also become completely reliant on his three point shot. Though he is a deadly marksman, he isn't going to the hole the way he should.
Advantage - Pierce - As good as Rush is, this one isn't close. Pierce is the best player of the Roy Williams era and during his Sophomore season, he became the go to guy on the perimeter. Nobody would ever have called him "passive."
Power Forward: 96-97 Raef Lafrentz, JR., 18.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 58% from the field vs. Darrell Arthur, SO., 13.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 54% from the field
Raef never gets the credit he deserves. You forget just how good he was. His fade-away jumper was money. He was a shot-blocking and rebounding beast, and commanded double teams every time he touched the ball in the low post. While Scot Pollard sat for 10 games with a broken foot, Raef stepped up his game big time and became an All-American. He had a streak of leading the team in scoring 14 of 15 games.
The man they call "Shady" has steadily improved during the season. He has put together a nice assortment of post moves including a sick fade-away and a jump hook. Arthur can run the floor about as well as any post man in the country and can knock down jumpers from anywhere. His defense is average and his rebounding could be better.
Advantage: Lafrentz - This was another no-brainer. The main difference here is that Lafrentz's season was where he made his big jump. Arthur is a superior athlete, but he doesn't have the instincts Raef did that season. Not to mention Raef's rebounding and shot blocking abilites were far superior to that of Shady.
Center: 96-97 Scot Pollard, SR., 10.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.6 BPG vs. Darnell Jackson, SR., 12.8 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 65% from the field
Pollard was a jokester. The guy everyone on the team loved and opponent's hated. A great rebounder and shot-blocker, Scot was the consumate garbage man. He knew how to use his big body to his advantage. He lost 10 games that season to a broken foot, and never really fully recovered.
The man-crush is the most improved player in the country. Nobody on the team works harder or wants it more. He mid-range jump shot has become automatic, he crashes the boards with a vengence, and dives all over the floor for loose balls. Like Chalmers and Robinson, Arthur and Jackson compliment each other beautifully.
Advantage: Jackson - This one is extremely close. Both guys are Senior leaders, players who are beloved by their teammates and the fans. But Jackson squeeks it out because he has become a dynamic offensive threat, therefore making his running mate Arthur even better. Not to mention, he is our second all-time favorite Jayhawk.
96-97 Billy Thomas, JR., 7.7 PPG, 41% on threes
Ryan Robertson, SO., 4.5 PPG, 41% on threes
T.J. Pugh, SO., 3.6 PPG, 2.1 RPG
B.J. Williams, SR., 3.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.0 BPG
07-08 Sherron Collins, SO., 9.0 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.4 SPG
Sasha Kaun, SR., 7.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.4 BPG
Rodrick Stewart, SR., 4.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.1 APG
Cole Aldrich, FR., 3,1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG
Billy Thomas. Ah yes, my alltime favorite Jayhawk. You needed instant offense and deep shooting off the bench, Billy was your guy. All of his shots seemed to be timely as well. Robertson was a steady backup PG who was deadly from deep. Just take a look at the Arizona game comeback. It was all Thomas and Robertson. They wanted to take big shots and nailed them. Pugh was the consumate role player big off the bench. He was a good rebounder and defender with a limited offensive game, save for his famous spin move against Iowa State. B.J. Williams used to anger me as much as any player next to Eric Chenowith. He though he was a better offensive player than he was and too often left his feet for blocks on the defensive end. If need be, Roy Williams had Junior PG C.B. McGrath and Freshman SF Nick Bradford in reserve.
This year's team has solid contributors off the bench, especially from the top two. While Sherron Collins still isn't 100%, he can come in at either guard spot and the team doesn't miss a step. He has the killer crossover and can knock down the deep three. Like Chalmers, he wants the ball in his hands late in games. Kaun has really embraced his role as a bench performer. He has learned how to harness his massive physical ability and it has helped his offensive game immensly. Defensively, he is KU's best big man. Stewart started at the beginning of the season while Rush was recovering from his knee injury. What we love about Rod is that he rarely makes mistakes, plays excellent defense, and hustles. He is the definition of a team player. Aldrich is young, and gets about 10 minutes a night, but defensively, he is a stud. Probably KU's best shot blocker. He is very fundamentally sound player, but his offensive skills still need work. Guards Tyrel Reed and Jeremy Case make cameos from time to time.
Advantage: 07-08 - Again, this was an extremely close call, but the athleticism of Collins and Stewart, and the ability for Kaun to be an interchangeble part up front is the difference. When Pugh or Williams would come in for Pollard or Lafrentz, the other player would immediately get double-teamed. That doesn't happen when Kaun steps on the floor. Thomas and Robertson cannot be overlooked though. They were extremely steady performers.
Coaches: 96-97 Roy Williams (34-2) vs. 07-08 Bill Self (20-0)
What is so interesting is that at the time, Roy Williams was what Bill Self is in a way now. Roy hadn't won the big one yet. Self is still trying to get to his first Final Four. Roy loved for his team to get up and down the floor as fast as possible. Self has adapted to his talent and has gone to more of a fast paced attack, even though he is the inventor of the high/low offense. Both face enormous pressure by a hungry KU fan base, but Self probably is under more scrutiny since he followed the legend, then proceeded to lose twice in a row in the first round in years two and three of his regime. Meanwhile, Roy had left and won his title, making things that much harder for Self.
Advantage: Push - I was going to give it to Self because under the pressures he has faced this year, he has this team playing as well as any team we've seen since 96-97, despite injuries to Rush and Collins. He has transformed Jackson into an NBA prospect (with the help of Danny Manning, lit a fire under Sasha Kaun and is getting great production out of him, and manages to keep this team happy and ego-free, despite all of the stars.
But looking back, Roy had the same issues. He lost both Pollard and Vaughn for 10 games apiece, and had this team 32-1 going into the tournament, with their one loss in double OT on the road to hated rival Missouri. That was in a year where they won the Maui Invitational, beat a top 5 Cincinnati team in Chicago, won at UCLA, at Connecticut, and destroyed ranked Big 12 teams Colorado and Iowa State twice.
Overall: The 96-97 team had NBA players in Pierce (future hall of famer), Lafrentz (lottery pick), Vaughn (first round pick), Robertson, and Thomas. On this year's team, you could see Rush, Chalmers, Collins, Arthur, Kaun, and Jackson all at the next level. Both teams had/have great chemistry and could score on anyone. The difference I see with this year's team is on the defensive end. They are regarded as one of the best defensive teams in the country, especially in the backcourt. They may not have the go-to guy like a Paul Pierce, but they have more options offensively. Collins, Rush, Arthur, Jackson, and Chalmers could all end up with the ball at the end of a close game. The bottom line is that this is KU's best shot to win a title. They have more talent than any KU team since the great 96-97 team, but they seem to have the killer instinct that the 96-97 team may have lacked. Then again, I could be wrong. We will see what this team is really made of in March.