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Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2003

Jayhawks have great expectations

On paper, KU — even with losses, coaching change — among nation’s best

August 16, 2003

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An angry Aaron Miles stormed out of Allen Fieldhouse April 14, accepting one question -- and one question only -- from reporters before ducking into the car of a Kansas University men's basketball teammate.

"What are your plans for next year?" someone asked the sophomore point guard, who, just a week after KU's national title loss to Syracuse, learned 15th-year head coach Roy Williams had accepted the North Carolina job.

"To win a national championship at Kansas," defiant floor general Miles answered, slamming shut the vehicle's front door, while keeping open the possibility of the school's third straight trip to the Final Four and first national championship since 1988.

Miles' frown -- caused by his head coach's shocking departure -- was replaced by a toothy grin seven days later when Bill Self was introduced as the eighth coach in Jayhawk history.

"Who knows? This might be a blessing in disguise," Miles said after meeting the energetic, 40-year-old Self, who compiled a 78-24 record in three seasons at Illinois. "We've got a good coach, good players who stuck together through this. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."

The Jayhawks, who return four starters from a 30-8 Final Four team, on paper resemble one of the strongest teams in the country.

Miles figures to be joined in the starting lineup by fellow juniors Keith Langford and Wayne Simien, plus senior Jeff Graves, who stepped in as a starter when Simien left the lineup because of a shoulder injury.

Gibbens to start?

The fifth starter could be newcomer J.R. Giddens, who hopes to do his part in making up for the loss of standouts Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, who have moved on to the NBA.

"We're not going to sidestep any expectations this year," an optimistic KU coach Self said. "On paper you don't lose two lottery picks and say, 'Well, we've got a chance to be just as good.' But I do think if Wayne is healthy, if we stay healthy, if things fall right and the freshmen play like sophomores, which they will be asked to do, I think this will be a very fun team to watch and coach."

The freshmen include a pair of McDonald's All-Americans in Giddens and 6-11 David Padgett, plus Jeremy Case, Omar Wilkes and walk-on Nick Bahe. They join KU's eight returning scholarship players -- Miles, Langford, Graves, Simien, Michael Lee, Bryant Nash, Jeff Hawkins and Moulaye Niang -- to form the nucleus of the team.

Also on hand are returning walk-ons Brett Olson, Christian Moody and Lawrence High graduate Stephen Vinson.

"There will be more and more young guys playing not only at Kansas but in all of college basketball. At Illinois we started three freshmen and sophomores and went 25-7," Self said. "Our motto is, 'Youth is no excuse.' This is going to be a real young team. Guys are going to have to step up and be counted on."

The veterans will be relied on heavily. Simien, a 6-9, 255-pound junior from Leavenworth, started 12 games last year, then missed 11 contests, returning to the team for four games as a reserve before shutting it down for the season and undergoing shoulder surgery.

Simien healthy

The good news is Simien, who averaged 14.8 points off 64.6 percent shooting and with an average of 8.2 boards, is expected to return as good as new.

Simien showed his vast potential, scoring in double figures in 11 of KU's first 12 games, before his shoulder popped out of place against UMKC in January at Kemper Arena.

He had 21 points versus Colorado and 17 versus Oklahoma despite playing in intense pain during his four-game comeback from the injury in February.

"I'm definitely excited about the season," Simien said. "We've got a good group of guys coming in, and coach Self said he is definitely going to have to cater to us for a little bit, until he can get his own group of guys in. That is definitely something we all wanted to hear."

Graves proved to be a pleasant surprise while filling in for Simien.

The 6-9, 275-pounder, who reported to school in August out of shape, wound up starting 23 of 36 games. He averaged 5.7 points off 50.6 percent shooting, while grabbing 6.4 boards per contest.

Graves scored 16 points with 16 boards in KU's NCAA title loss to Syracuse. He also had 13 points and 15 boards in a regular-season loss to Arizona.

"Jeff Graves has played at a level that leaves everybody thirsty for more," Self said. "And he's also played at a level where maybe he hasn't been quite as consistent. I think that his performance, attitude and his acceptance to a leadership role will be important as anything that happens with this team."

The 6-4 Langford proved to be a sophomore scoring machine, averaging 15.8 points off 52.3 percent shooting. He erupted for 23 points in KU's Final Four semifinal win over Marquette and tallied 19 in the final versus Syracuse. He played 39 minutes, scoring 13 points in KU's Elite Eight win over Arizona after scoring 27 versus the Wildcats in a regular-season loss.

Langford key weapon

Langford, who averaged almost five boards a game, had a whopping 33 double-figure scoring games after tallying 11 as a freshman. He scored off mid-range jumpers, three-pointers and his patented slash to the bucket.

"I try to score the easiest way possible," Langford said, acknowledging he may be best known for his drives.

Self likes all of Langford's moves.

"I don't think there's any question Keith won't be under the radar any longer," Self said. "Keith was a highly recruited guy, but may have actually exceeded people's expectations so far. He's a tremendous scorer, great athlete and I think his confidence right now is at a point where he's ready to take another step."

Miles dished 243 assists (6.6 per game) against 121 turnovers while contributing 8.9 points a game off 40.4 percent shooting. Miles had big offensive games -- he tallied 18 against Marquette, 16 and 15 in wins at California and Tulsa, 16 against Iowa State in the Big 12 Conference tournament, plus 18 in a second-round NCAA Tournament game against Arizona State.

A pass-first, shoot-second point guard, Miles only needs to improve his shooting percentage -- he hit 24 of 96 threes -- to perhaps be regarded as the country's top floor general.

Nash, a 6-6 senior from Carrollton, Texas, returns for his final go-round after enjoying, by far, his best season at KU. Nash, a 41.2 percent shooter, came off the bench to average 11.8 minutes a game in 37 games. He tallied 2.9 points and 2.3 boards per contest.

Nash struggled from long distance, canning just six of 29 threes, but had some big rebounding games, with 12 against Texas A&M and seven at Texas Tech.

"Improving my shot, my handles, continuing to get stronger," Nash said were some of his goals for his senior campaign.

Lee Sixth Man Deluxe

Lee, 6-3 from Portland, proved to be a key sixth man as a sophomore, when he was the Jayhawks' first player off the bench in 19 games. He played 16.2 minutes a game in 36 games, hitting for 5.1 points and 2.4 boards. He swished 21 of 42 threes and was a 49 percent overall marksman.

Lee scored 13 points in KU's Final Four rout of Marquette.

"I think I exceeded expectations of me, but I don't think I proved anything," said Lee, who suffered a strained MCL in his left knee during the summer that was to keep him out two to four weeks.

"My ballhandling and decision making are probably two biggest things I need to improve. I have confidence in my shot. I'm never satisfied with it."

Hawkins, 5-11 from Kansas City, played in 29 games, dishing 13 assists against 12 turnovers. He made seven of 27 three-pointers while hitting eight of 39 shots overall.

"The year was fun," Hawkins said. "It let me know what I need to work on. I need to basically cut down turnovers. That's what coach got on me the most for."

Niang, 6-10 from Senegal, hit 13 of 36 shots overall while grabbing 41 rebounds in 28 games.

"I've got to get bigger and stronger," Niang said. "At one point I hit the freshman wall. I don't think that will happen again."

Walk-ons Moody (6-7), Vinson (6-2) and Olson (6-7) did not see much duty in a year former KU coach Williams didn't go more than seven or eight deep.

Pair of All-Americans

KU welcomes McDonald's All-Americans in Padgett, 6-11 from Reno, Nev., and Giddens, 6-5 from Oklahoma City, plus sharpshooter Case, 6-0 from McAlester, Okla., and smooth do-everything Wilkes, 6-4 from Los Angeles to go with 6-3 walk-on Bahe, an accurate outside shooter from Lincoln, Neb.

"Bringing in those players will keep us strong," Niang said. "I don't care who we bring in. If I work hard, I'll get to play. You always want to bring in good players every year."

"I think it's a good thing," Lee said of bringing in stellar incoming players. "If somebody else comes in behind me and knocks me out of a position I'm in ... I mean, I trust coach. He'll make the best decisions for our team. I'll do my best to make it tough on them, at the same time if they are better than me they should play."

As far as how KU will play, Self plans to run with the basketball.

"I think NBA coaches tailor their style to fit personnel," Self said. "I think that anybody that has a guy that can really shoot or a guy that can really seal in the post ... you've got to do some things to make sure that they can catch the ball and give them the best chance. Certainly we'll tweak it, but these guys fit our style. We will run high-lows. We'll do some different things, because that's what I know and I believe. But as far as simply watching this team play, you're not going to see a lot of difference."

Running game

That means KU will run.

"That's how we do coach," Self said. "When I was at Illinois. My first year I loved those guys. It wasn't because we outran anybody. It's because we played very physical. My first year Illinois starting three man was 6-2, 245 and I had four big guys who were all 6-9 or taller, 240 or heavier. My two point guards were 210 pounds.

"It was a team coach (Lon) Kruger recruited and did a great job recruiting those guys. If you watched our team this year it was built on speed. If you watched my teams play at Tulsa they were built on speed.

"The way I like to watch it and the way I like to coach it is based on pressure and getting after people and getting easy baskets. Stealing easy baskets. If it means shooting quick, let's shoot quick."

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