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Jayhawks flying high in a grounded way

MADISON, Wis. -- There he was, sore hammy and all, determined to dance.

The Kansas Jayhawks had just beaten Oregon to book their place in the Final Four, and for a moment it looked as if they wouldn't need a plane to reach Atlanta.

Hopping up and down in place, slowly at first and then faster and faster, the whole lot of them appeared ready to take off -- until coach Roy Williams turned up at the front of the pack.

"I've got a bad hamstring, and the first jump I make, I sort of strained it a little bit," Williams said. "So I limped through it and got my rear end out of there.

"I'm 51," he added, shaking his head, "going on 100."

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Turns out that wasn't the only dancing Williams did Sunday.

Midway through the second half, his team was rolling as only they can. They were sweeping the glass, spreading the defense, scoring off the break and inside the lane, wearing down the Ducks the way they had 32 other opponents this season.

But then, in just 76 seconds, three turnovers reduced a 14-point Kansas lead to six and lifted Williams out of his seat. As Oregon's Freddy Jones raced up the court on a breakaway dunk, Williams stormed up the sideline and threw his arms wildly behind him, the first step in shedding his suit jacket and firing it into the stands.

A moment later, though, Williams simply pushed over the chair he just vacated. The moment after that, suddenly calm, he called a 30-second timeout. As quickly as Williams regained his composure, Kansas resumed rolling en route to a 104-86 final.

Recalling the scene afterward, he wore a sheepish grin.

"As a coach, you can't do a lot to show frustration. You can't run out there and strangle somebody," Williams said.

Compared with some of the other motivational stunts he's pulled over the years, that little fit of pique was nothing.

To change his luck in NCAA tournaments past, Williams has, at various times, stopped the team bus so he could spit in the Mississippi River; patted the gravestone of Dr. James Naismith, Kansas' first coach and the man credited with inventing basketball; and brought a stuffed monkey to meetings for his players to pummel.

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Those tactics have yielded plenty of success, but not the national championship that Williams' toughest critics insist he needs to fill out his resume. Since leaving Dean Smith's side as an assistant at North Carolina in 1988, Williams has taken Kansas to the tournament in all but his first season and has now reached the Final Four for the third time. But the expectations have been even greater.

"Coach Williams came up to me before the game, and he said, 'It's a shame one team has to go home with a rock in its gut,"' Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. "Unfortunately, that team is us."

After a pause, though, Kent's expression brightened. He picked Kansas and Williams to win it all.

"For as much criticism as he's taken, I just don't understand it," Kent said.

Neither does Williams, who played for Smith at North Carolina and suffered almost as much waiting for his mentor to finally win the biggest game of his career. And when Smith finally won the national title in 1982, what stayed with Williams down through the years was something Smith told him that evening: "I'm not really any better coach than I was two hours ago."

The strange thing is that Williams is the same age as Smith when he won the championship, and probably improving as a coach in the bargain. This will mark the fifth time he's gone into the tournament as a No. 1 seed. It will be the first time he's made the Final Four as a top seed, and the reason is a newfound flexibility.

For most of his stay at Kansas, Williams was something of a control freak, relying on big men and employing structured half-court play where he called the shots on nearly every possession. In the last few years, as most promising big men went straight to the NBA and his college brethren employed smaller, quicker squads to hoist more three-point shots, it seemed the game might have passed Williams by.

But loyalty, an easy temper and an honest approach to building a program aren't the only reasons Williams is so admired in the fraternity. He's a notoriously quick study, and when he studied this edition of the Jayhawks, he came to the conclusion it was better off running and making its own decisions on the fly. The point guard who runs the offense, Aaron Miles, is a freshman, and the kid who made the difference Sunday was another freshman, Keith Langford.

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"He's had so much confidence in this team all year," Langford said, "and we've trusted him back."

It's worked in ways the teacher and his students probably never imagined in October, when they got together for the first time.

"If we win the national championship," Williams said, "I won't love these kids any more than I love them tonight."

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. He can be contacted at jlitke@ap.org

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