Banged-up Jayhawks find resolve, victory
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There were 46.7 seconds to play in Rupp Arena on Sunday, and Kansas coach Bill Self's bench was a triage center.
Leading scorer and rebounder Wayne Simien was in street clothes, recovering from thumb surgery. Second-leading scorer Keith Langford sat slumped in a chair, eyes glazed, a head-to-head collision having scrambled his noggin two minutes earlier.
Starting power forward Christian Moody was out with a twisted left ankle. Trainer Bill Cowgill left Moody to wince so he could bandage a cut on freshman forward Alex Galindo's forearm. Fellow freshman Russell Robinson was of no use after being poked in the eye. Center Sasha Kaun was making do with a heavily-taped right thumb.
You half expected Noah Wylie to appear in scrubs, grab a medical chart and order a chest intubation. What you didn't expect was for the few healthy Jayhawks to make a play that would silence 24,459 souls -- the second-largest crowd in Rupp history.
Outside the undefeated Jayhawks' huddle, that crowd was raising hell. Host Kentucky had slogged back in this alley-fight game, rallying from a late eight-point deficit to pull within a bucket at 58-56. Kansas had 17 seconds on the shot clock, and Tubby Smith's team was ready to apply maximum defensive heat.
Senior point guard Aaron Miles tried to work a pick-and-roll to the left of the key. But Miles got his feet entangled with Kentucky guard Patrick Sparks and wound up stumbling and falling onto his rear, all the while maintaining possession. Just a few feet away stood his old Portland, Ore., homey and fellow Kansas lifer, Michael Lee, surprisingly alone.
|"||Kansas coach Bill Self's bench was a triage center you half expected Noah Wylie to appear in scrubs, grab a medical chart and order a chest intubation. "|
"Just a Portland connection," Miles said. "I knew where he was going to be."
Rip City, as they say back home. While on his backside, Miles delivered his fifth and final assist of the day. Lee took the ball and calmly sank his first and only field goal of the game, a 3-pointer that pierced the net with 20.7 seconds left, as the shot clock blared and Rupp despaired.
"My mentality is to stay ready for anything that happens," said Lee, a career four-points-per-game scorer who has never shied away from the big shot. (You might remember him as the Jayhawk who launched a potential tying 3-pointer against Syracuse in the final seconds of the 2003 championship game, only to have Hakim Warrick swat it into the stands.)
"I can knock down open shots," Lee said. "But I didn't think it was going in when I shot it. It didn't feel good."
It felt great upon splashdown, and again when the final buzzer sounded on a 65-59 triumph. Kansas, a program that thrived in its final years under Roy Williams with flash-and-dash offense, is now thriving in Year Two under Self with grit-and-spit resourcefulness.
"We did play tough," a deeply satisfied Self said.
Tough enough for No. 2 Kansas to win its first road game of the year, after basically lolling in Lawrence through 10 straight victories. Tough enough to do it in one of America's toughest venues, against the winningest program in history. Tough enough to pull it off with half the team limping, grimacing or otherwise impaired. And tough enough to outpush and outshove an opponent that excels at push-and-shove basketball.
"Kansas has always played defense, always been tough," Self said. "But this was one area where I thought we had to take it to another level -- because we don't have the easy points yet. We don't have three lottery picks in the lineup yet. "I hope it's not this muddy all the time, but when you can't score the ball, you've got to be great defensively. Last two games, I thought we were great defensively."
Fact is, Kansas hasn't allowed anyone to score more than 62 points in regulation in a month. Keep that up, and the Jayhawks will keep going for a while with a zero on the right-hand side of their record. And if Self's role players continue to build upon their performances on Sunday, the loss of Simien could wind up a long-term benefit.
"We said all along it would be a blessing, because it'll force our hand to have depth," Self said.
Say hello to the steadily deepening Kansas frontcourt:
Their performances were so solid, even their coach hardly recognized them.
"Our big guys hadn't played anything like that this year," Self said. "Practice included."
The net result?
"They outplayed us inside," Smith said.
Along the way, Kansas' freshmen combined for 22 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots. Kentucky got 11 points, nine rebounds and three blocks from what was widely considered the premier freshman class in the country. (Smith now might be dealing with a few pouty faces from that group -- notably Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, each of whom played three minutes against Kansas. Crawford played just four minutes and Bradley six in Kentucky's SEC opener against South Carolina last Wednesday.)
"Our freshmen had to outplay their freshmen," Self said.
As Kansas limped out of Rupp Arena, it was apparent that those freshmen -- and all other able bodies -- must continue to perform well for the Jayhawks to maintain their roll. Langford and Moody will be question marks for Kansas' game at Iowa State on Wednesday, but it's clearly hard to get anyone in blue to panic.
"Somebody's going to step up on this team," Miles declared. "As long as we don't have to play a whole game without Wayne, Keith and Moody -- well, even if we do have to play without them, we'll be all right."
You'd be foolish to bet against a team with these survival instincts now -- and even more foolish down the road, when Kansas returns to full strength.
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.