Senior partners separated (on court) in NBA

Two Iowa kids who met on an AAU court, somehow wound up together in Lawrence, Kan., decided to stay four years despite being All-Americans, and ended their college careers with two straight Final Fours. It would be enough if the story ended here.

But in the case of Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, the duo remains connected even after their final college game -- at least until draft night -- when both could be selected in the NBA draft lottery on June 26, or at the very least, the first round?

How rare is that?

Well, in the last 10 years, senior teammates have been chosen in the same first round only four times; once in 2000 (Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson), twice in 1997 (Kansas' Scot Pollard and Jacque Vaughn, and Minnesota's Bobby Jackson and John Thomas) and once in 1996 (Kentucky's Tony Delk and Walter McCarty).

If Collison is able to crack the lottery, he'd join Hinrich and the pair would be the first senior teammates selected over the past 10 lotteries. In fact, only five combinations of teammates have been lottery picks.

Kind of puts Kansas cohorts Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison in some pretty elite company, huh?

"We've played together a long time," said Hinrich, all but a lock for the lottery. "We both deserve it. But this is crazy with two guys from Iowa, in the same class, the same age and a chance to be lottery picks in the same draft. That's not going to happen too often.

"It's definitely a big deal. You can probably count the number of NBA players from Iowa on the same hand, and then to have two coming out in the same year?"

"We always dreamed we could play in the NBA," said Collison, who has a chance to crack the lottery and shouldn't fall any lower than the late teens on draft night. "We were confident and cocky when we played AAU ball in Iowa. It didn't matter where we were from."

Breaking up the Hinrich-Collison tandem will be tough on a personal level, as well as for fans in Lawrence. There are other teammate combinations with plenty of accolades in this draft (see: Luke Walton and Jason Gardner at Arizona), but these two Midwestern kids have grown into soon-to-be millionaires together, and no matter where they wind up at the next level, they will know each other better than other college combinations entering the NBA.

"What you're getting with Nick is a guy who cares about winning and who will work hard and improve," Hinrich said. "Nick isn't going to be a guy who thinks he's got it made and stop working. He will do a lot to make his team better."

"I'll miss playing with a guy who is so competitive and wants to win so much," said the 6-9 Collison, who was voted the NABC national player of the year in 2003. "I'm sure there are other guys like that in the NBA, but every day in college you knew he would show up to play in practice and in games. I'll miss playing with him and also because we're good friends. That's something about college that you get. The NBA is much more of a business and the guys aren't as close."

Collison said the reason this hasn't happened more often is elite players aren't sticking around for their senior year. He used former Kansas teammate Drew Gooden as a perfect example. Had Gooden not left Kansas as a junior last year, the Jayhawks would have three players vying for lottery spots.

"Everybody got involved at Kansas and it allowed more guys to shine and play well and develop," Collison said. "We both developed at the same curve, and so did Drew. But he left a year early."

The amazing part of this duo's story is that it almost ended after high school. And it nearly happened at Big 12 rival Iowa State.

Hinrich committed to Iowa State before his junior season when Tim Floyd was still the Cyclones' coach. But when Floyd left for the Bulls during the summer after Hinrich's junior season, he was able to get out of the commitment to ISU, while Collison was still waiting to make his college decision.

"I would have gone to Iowa State," Hinrich said. "Nick liked (Floyd), so it would have been a possibility."

"It would have been a tough decision for me," Collison said. "Had (Floyd) stayed, it would have meant my recruiting process would have gone on longer. I would have given Iowa State a serious look, but I kept my options open."

Four years later, Hinrich once again pretty much knows where he's going on draft night. Hinrich won't get past the Bucks at No. 8 -- if he lasts that long.

The 6-2 combo guard with point-guard skills is a lock for the lottery and has worked bout for every team in the lottery except Cleveland, Detroit and Denver. The Sioux City, Iowa, native was a "lead guard" at Kansas and is considered the top point guard behind LeBron James and T.J. Ford in this year's draft.

Hinrich's numbers (17.3 ppg, 40.6 percent on 3s) are legit for a lottery pick. But Hinrich's game is more advanced than a traditional point guard in the lottery. He has the quickness, the jumping ability, the eye for the right pass, and the court savvy to be a player in the NBA. His knowledge of the game and maturity are a reflection of him spending four years at Kansas.

"The NBA is a different game and you've got to play consistent," Hinrich said. "You could take nights off in college against some point guards, but you can't do that in the NBA. Playing against the best point guards in the world means you have to be consistent. I got more ready for the NBA in my senior year. I love college basketball, but toward the end of the year, I was ready for a new challenge."

If the draft falls a certain way, Collison could be once again linked to Hinrich -- going right behind him as high as No. 9 to the Knicks. But Collison could also fall as low as No. 18 to the Hornets. But, don't be surprised if the Sonics grab him with one of their two picks at No. 12 or 14 if the Wooden Award finalist is still on the board.

"I don't care if I go two spots lower (than the lottery) as long as I'm in a spot where I can play," said Collison, who hails from Iowa Falls, Iowa. "I'd much rather go there. We're both as well prepared for the NBA as anybody."

Collison might be even more seasoned for the rigors of the NBA than Hinrich. Collison will play with NBA players for the second straight summer, already having practiced with the U.S. team at the World Championships in 2002. He is one of this year's finalists to make the U.S. qualifying team for the 2004 Olympics.

"That will help me when I go to the summer league and training camp," Collison said. "When I played with those (NBA) guys last year, I was just floating and I wasn't sure what to do. Once I realized that I could rebound, I was a lot more comfortable. It won't take me long to get acquainted to (the NBA)."

With their NBA futures drawing near, neither can shake the disappointment of his final college game -- a loss to Syracuse in the 2003 title game this past April. The pair led Kansas to back-to-back Final Fours, but left empty-handed each time, losing to Maryland in the 2002 national semifinals.

"We thought we would win it," Collison said of the 2003 final. "But you get over it and move on to other things. I'm glad I had the draft to get ready for, otherwise it would be killing me to this day. I felt like we should have won it but I'm sure Syracuse feels the same way. I had a good career with two Final Fours. A lot of great Kansas players never went to one."

Even fewer college programs have enjoyed a twosome such as Hinrich and Collison -- teammates too good to remain teammates after June 26.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.