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.
"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
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
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.' "
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
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,
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
"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
Jason King of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org