Releford carves his niche

Quietly, while most of the rest of the players frustrate their coach with uneven performances, particularly at the defensive end, Kansas University red-shirt sophomore Travis Releford continues to get better.

Releford has carved a niche for himself on the nation’s third-ranked basketball team. He takes pride in playing strong defense and is capable of handling a variety of assignments.

When Releford entered Wednesday night’s 82-57 victory against UT Arlington, KU’s intensity deepened, and the foes went from playing on their toes to retreating onto their heels.

On a night Kansas made playing defense look difficult, particularly late in the shot clock against UTA’s deliberate pace, Releford made it sound so simple.

“It’s all about wanting to be a good defender first, and after that, you’ve got your team to help you,” Releford said. “If you listen to the coaches, you should be fine.”

Mario Little’s indefinite suspension and Jeff Withey’s limited progress have enabled Releford to showcase his versatility, playing minutes at the power forward position.

“I practice guarding the post and the perimeter,” Releford said. “Whenever he needs me to go down low, I try to keep my guy from catching it, and when he needs me on the perimeter, I do my best at keeping my guy in front of me.”

When Kansas went to its full-court press to rattle the Mavericks, it worked in part because Releford carried out his assignment. When KU coach Bill Self needed somebody to cool off UTA sharp-shooter Bo Ingram in the second half, he challenged Releford to do so, sent him in the game and watched him carry out that assignment.

Early in the season, Releford drew his coach’s ire by throwing down a reverse slam that came with far too much mustard. Wednesday, when he stole the ball and went in uncontested, he went up, way up, with two hands and dunked the ball. The wild colt, who played sparingly as a freshman, has tamed his game and polished his jumper.

Releford made two of three three-pointers against UTA to raise his season percentage to .455. His overall percentage is .596. He averages 6.1 points and 15.3 minutes.

“He’s a good defender and a good energy guy,” Self said. “He only played a couple of minutes in the first half, so I didn’t give him a chance, and he was ready to play when his number was called, so I was real pleased. I thought defensively, he definitely spurred us tonight.”

UT Arlington shot 48 percent in the first half, 39 in the second.

“Tonight, there was only one guy who stood out on that end, and that was Travis,” Self said.

Eager to please, Releford smiled when that statement was repeated to him.

“That should be the best thing for anyone to hear,” Releford said, “to hear the coach say you played a great defensive game.”

Releford is quick, but not as quick as Tyshawn Taylor, yet on this night Releford played better perimeter defense than Taylor. Releford is long, but not as tall as the twins and Thomas Robinson, yet Releford’s better than them at keeping his man from catching it on the block.

When KU’s top three big men and most talented perimeter defender place the same importance on those areas as Releford, this team will explode.