It's unsurprising that a photo of Kansas seniors Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, clad in beige suits, adorns the cover of the Jayhawks' basketball media guide. The telling aspect of the photo is how it was shot -- from a low angle, as a monument might be, with Collison and Hinrich set against the blue sky.
It is reverent treatment, but well deserved. After four years -- a rarity in the current college basketball climate -- Collison and Hinrich have become Kansas' dynamic duo, stars of a prolific offense that averages 83 points per game and has scored 100 points or more five times, including the second-seeded Jayhawks' 108-76 second-round win against Arizona State in the NCAA tournament's West Region.
Thursday night against the third-seeded Duke Blue Devils, Collison and Hinrich will attempt to lead the Jayhawks -- appearing in the round of 16 for the third straight year -- to their second consecutive regional final. It's the next step toward winning the NCAA championship that has eluded the pair so far, but would put a storybook ending on their college careers.
"Unfinished business," said Hinrich, speaking of last's year tournament run, which ended in a Final Four defeat to eventual champion Maryland. "We got a taste of almost accomplishing our goal last year, and wanted to come back and give it a shot."
The tandem's paths began in uncanny parallel in their native Iowa, where each was coached by his father through high school, and then converged. They played on the same AAU team, and were co-winners of the state's top high school honor, Mr. Iowa Basketball. Then they headed to Kansas, where in four seasons, the Jayhawks are 110-28.
They make a formidable pair, and everyone on Kansas's squad is grateful they returned for their senior seasons when either could have left for the NBA.
"We all wanted them back because we knew what kind of team we could have," said Hinrich's back-court partner, Keith Langford. "But at the same time, whatever decision they made, I think everybody was going to be behind them. I'm not going to tell anybody, 'Don't go be rich.' If I had the same opportunity, I probably would have chose otherwise."
Hinrich, a finalist for the Naismith Award and the Jayhawks' 6-foot-3 veteran point guard, literally does everything. He averages 17.5 points per game, shooting 49.4 percent. He averages 3.5 assists per game and earned Big 12 first team and all-defense team honors.
"Kirk is just like an energy guy," said forward Jeff Graves. "He's like an Energizer bunny. He just never stops, never stops. He always goes."
It's Hinrich's effort, more than anything, that impresses Langford.
"I've learned from Kirk all year," he said, "as far as how to keep an intensity about yourself throughout the whole game. You can't take any possessions off. I don't think there's a game where Kirk goes back and says he wished he would have played harder. I want to have that same thought process after the game."
Then there is Collison, the 6-9 forward who spent this past summer at the world championships training with NBA players on the U.S. team. A first-team all-American, Naismith Award finalist and the Big 12 Conference player of the year, Collison has shot a blistering 53.8 percent, averaging 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, earning him the respect of players and coaches around the nation.
Following a television interview today, Collison lingered in the hallway with Arizona's Luke Walton, the two joking and laughing as if they were teammates, as opposed to possible next-round adversaries.
"I love Nick Collison," said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski. "I think he's the best player in the United States. I would have loved to have coached him. A number of our guys have played on teams with him, and they've loved playing with him. He's a beautiful kid and a beautiful player to watch. I hope he's not that beautiful tomorrow night."
The Big 12's career leader in points (2,025) and rebounds (1,079), Collison also ranks among Kansas' top three all-time scorers, rebounders and shot blockers. Success has come, he explained, because he and Hinrich think about only one thing.
"We're both really into basketball," he said with a good-natured grin. "There's really not a lot else going on with us. We just kind of sit and watch games."
In fact, both are so focused that Kansas Coach Roy Williams is unconcerned about how they will prepare themselves for Duke.
"Nick and Kirk are pretty doggone good," he said. "I let them do whatever it is they want to do."
For the immediate future, what Collison and Hinrich want is a victory over the Blue Devils.
"It is always great to get a win over a team like Duke," Hinrich said. "These are two programs with great history. They are a great team and [beating them] would be a great accomplishment."