KU seniors show way to Ws

Originally Published: January 19, 2005
By Jason King | Special to ESPN.com

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Poor Kansas Jayhawks.

Here they are -- one of only four undefeated teams in all of college basketball -- yet Bill Self's players will tell you things aren't unfolding exactly as planned. They're winning, sure. It's just that the victories aren't coming in typical KU fashion.

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  • "When we're ahead," forward Christian Moody said, "we need to learn to put our foot in someone's throat."

    Indeed, five of the Jayhawks' last seven victories have come by six points or fewer. The average college hoops fan would probably never guess that America's second-ranked team had to come from behind to defeat Vermont and South Carolina. Or that it needed a last-minute three-pointer to surge past Texas A&M -- all at home.

    Not exactly a Nike-to-Adam's Apple type of triumph.

    Even in last week's 76-61 win at Big 12 bottom feeder Colorado, Kansas let the Buffaloes shave its 18-point lead to one before pulling away at the end. It may make for great television, but Self's fingernails are getting shorter by the day.

    "I don't like coaching in close games," Self said. "I think the guys are just doing this to mess with me."

    All joshing aside, Self isn't concerned about his squad's habit of keeping scores tight. If anything, it's just the opposite.

    Deep down he knows that their ability to come through in the clutch is what defines these Jayhawks, what makes them different from the handful of teams included among college basketball's elite. North Carolina can boast that it runs a more efficient offense, and Wake Forest may have the country's top player in Chris Paul.

    No team, though, has the mental toughness of Kansas.

    "The great thing about our team," Self said, "is that these guys have confidence that whoever we put in there will find a way to get the job done."

    Kansas is in a rare situation. Even Self will admit it. During an era in which more and more underclassmen are leaving school early to declare for the NBA Draft, the Jayhawks' heart and soul is a group of seniors who will be remembered as the most successful class in the storied history of KU's program.

    Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles, Michael Lee and Keith Langford have appeared in two Final Fours and an Elite Eight since arriving in Lawrence four years ago. Their record as Jayhawks: 100-21.

    No surprise, then, that it's almost always someone from that battle-tested foursome who bails Kansas out just when things appear to be heading south. Five times this season, the Jayhawks have been losing with under five minutes remaining. KU has won each time.

    Self's squad was 0-8 in those scenarios last season.

    "In situations like that," Miles said, "we (seniors) just think, 'Something needs to be done. A play needs to be made. Someone needs to do something to stop the bleeding.' "

    To wit:

  • After leading by as many as nine points midway through the second half, KU allowed Iowa State to rally and surge ahead 54-52. Suddenly the crowd at Ames' Hilton Coliseum was going bananas.

    No matter. On Kansas' next possession, Langford swished an 18-footer that ignited a personal 8-0 run. Iowa State never threatened again.

  • Three days later, after Colorado sliced KU's 18-point lead to one, the Jayhawks seniors scored their team's next 18 points in a game-deciding march. Eleven of them came from Langford, who had just three points before the adversity struck.

  • In their first road game of the season, Kansas silenced a crazed Rupp Arena when Miles fed Lee for the game-winning three-pointer with 30 seconds remaining.

  • Kansas rallied from a 16-point deficit to defeat Georgia Tech 70-68 in overtime at Allen Fieldhouse. Langford, who asked for the ball on KU's last possession, made a fall-away jumper to secure the win with 3.3 ticks left on the clock. Langford scored 16 of his 18 points after intermission.

    "It's not that we're playing great," Self said. "But they feel like they can figure out a way to win. Every time things have gotten tight on the road, we've responded."

    And, more often than not, Langford is the player who leads the charge. After being overshadowed in the past by standouts such as Simien, Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, Langford is finally getting the attention he deserves on a national level.

    "Keith feels like, when a game is close, it's his time to take over," said Miles, who's shooting 58.3 percent from 3-point range after posting a 31.5 percent mark in his first three seasons.

    Simien, who is averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds since returning from a thumb injury, agreed that Langford has been the team's catalyst in close games.

    "Keith is a second-half guy," Simien said. "He's had to shake some cobwebs off the first half. He gets to the line better than any guy in the country. He's clutch, a key go-to guy."

    Langford, at least for now, is prohibited from speaking with the media thanks to a reprimand he received for criticizing officials on Jan. 5. But that doesn't mean his coach isn't singing his praises.

    "The constant denominator has been Keith. In the key stretches -- those three or four possessions when it really counts -- Keith turns it on. For whatever reason, he really seems to like it when it counts the most."

    It's actually that way with all the Jayhawks, who, barring an upset by Nebraska, Villanova or Baylor, should be 16-0 when Texas visits Lawrence with ESPN College GameDay on Jan. 29. Self knows his squad needs to improve greatly before that showdown, but he couldn't ask for a better current situation.

    "Right now our guys are about as confident as they can possibly be," Self said.

    Jason King of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at jking@kcstar.com