Young Kansas trio old in ways of court

Though freshmen, Miles, Langford, Simien play major roles for Jayhawks

Final Four

March 30, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - They have been through the routine countless times now: the practices and film sessions, the pre- and post-game news conferences and, most importantly, the games. They came to Kansas together last summer, hoping someday to play in the Final Four, hoping someday to win a national championship.

Tonight, they will play a significant role in determining the outcome for the Jayhawks in their national semifinal game here against Maryland.

Point guard Aaron Miles, swingman Keith Langford and forward Wayne Simien have grown immeasurably in recent weeks. Their contributions as Kansas beat Illinois and Oregon in last weekend's Midwest Regional in Madison, Wis., weren't merely found in their statistics.

In this case, these are freshmen who play outside the box score.

"All their stats are obvious," Kansas assistant coach Neil Dougherty said outside the team's dressing room at the Georgia Dome yesterday. "But they make plays that you don't say, `That's pretty good for a freshman.' You'd say, `That's pretty good for a senior.' "

Miles has been the most acclaimed of the three, having started all but one of the team's 36 games and being named to the Big 12 Conference's all-freshman team. Langford's game has improved to the point where last week he found himself on the all-tournament team at the Kohl Center, and Simien continues to make contributions every night.

It was not only Langford's offense - including a career-high 20 points against the Ducks and 15 against the Illini - that made a difference for the Jayhawks as they reached their first Final Four in nine years. The 6-foot-4 guard from Fort Worth, Texas, has, to his own surprise, gained a reputation as a defensive stopper.

"Honestly, I never played defense in my life," said Langford, whose role recently expanded when junior Kirk Hinrich was sidelined and later limited by a sprained ankle. "Primarily, I've always been an offensive player. Now, I focus as much on my defense as on my offense."

Much of the spotlight today will be on how well Miles handles the pressure - both the kind applied by Maryland's half-court traps and that of attempting to become only the second freshman point guard to lead his team to a national championship, following Arizona's Mike Bibby in 1997.

"It was never in my thoughts until people kept mentioning Mike Bibby," said Miles, who at 6 feet 1 and 175 pounds has earned his own defensive stripes, helping shut down Frank Williams of Illinois and Luke Ridnour or Oregon last weekend.

"Winning a national championship is something I want to do, not because of Mike Bibby, but because that's something our team has been working for."

As with most players at this level, Miles doesn't think what he and the other Kansas freshmen have done is anything remarkable.

"We were all-everything in high school," said Miles, who grew up in Portland, Ore. "We're all confident in our ability, and the older guys on the team are confident in what we can do."

Simien, perhaps the quietest of the three Kansas freshmen, also could play an important role against the Terps. Given the advantage Maryland is believed to have in the inside game, the 6-9, 235-pound Simien might be one of the keys. His ability to spell Nick Collison or Big 12 Player of the Year Drew Gooden has been vital for the Jayhawks.

"It's definitely going to be important for us to get scoring and defense off the bench," said Simien, who has managed to stay healthy after a high school career in Leavenworth, Kan., that was interrupted by injuries. "This is a great opportunity for us and we have to take advantage of it."

One thing that has allowed Langford and Simien to succeed this season is their ability to play more than one position. The flexibility and willingness of Hinrich to move off the point after two years to a shooting-guard position has enabled Roy Williams to use Miles in a starting role.

"Aaron gives you the solid play, the defense, the assist-turnover ratio," Williams said. "Keith gives us a slasher to the basket, better and better defensive feel. I'm beginning to believe he may be a fantastic defender. Wayne gives you the muscle, rebounding, scoring touch up front. All three of them have added something different to us."

Maryland can only hope that all three play like freshmen tonight and not make the kind of plays usually reserved for seniors.

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