Langford hopes to make Kansas shoo-in

Sophomore playing well, and, so far, staying with shoes that got him here

NCAA Men's Final Four

Ncaa Tournament

April 07, 2003|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Want a good indicator of how the men's national championship game is going tonight? Don't look at the scoreboard. Look at Kansas guard Keith Langford's shoes.

If he's wearing a different pair at the start of the second half, things probably aren't going well for Kansas. You see, Langford has had this quirky superstition ever since high school, that if he's not playing well, he's putting on a different pair of sneakers at halftime.

"It's just something I've been doing since high school," Langford said. "My mom would tell me to change my shoes if I had a bad half. It's just a superstition. I haven't been doing it much lately."

The reason? There hasn't been the need. Langford - who lately prefers a trusty pair of white and blue Air Jordans - has played as well as any Kansas player in the NCAA tournament, averaging 18 points (up from 15.6 during the regular season). The sophomore's 23-point effort in Saturday's semifinal win over Marquette looked almost effortless, and certainly caught the attention of tonight's opposing coach.

"He's a tremendous player," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "He can shoot it, he get in the lane, he can rebound. He's a challenge for anybody's defense."

And though he doesn't get the media attention of seniors Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, there is a good chance his play will determine against Syracuse whether the Jayhawks claim their third national title tonight (and first since 1988). Langford, you see, will be the man attempting to guard Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony. The last guy in Langford's position, Texas' Royal Ivey, could only watch as Anthony scored 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in Saturday's semifinal.

But if you think Langford is nervous, or scared, you should think again.

"It's going to be a big challenge," Langford said. "I mean I can't really say what I want to, man. He's good. He's supposed to be a top-three pick in the draft or whatever. If he plays well, it's expected. If I play well, or get the best of him, I guess it will be a monumental accomplishment. ... Maybe I'll end up going top two or three in the draft."

At 6 feet 4, Langford will be giving up four inches to Anthony, but that matters little to the guy who earned the nickname "Ke-Freeze" in high school because his teammates claimed he had ice in his veins at the end of games. He has bristled somewhat at the amount of praise being heaped on Anthony by the national media in New Orleans.

"I don't really care about all the attention he [Anthony] gets," Langford said. "It's not going to help him out on the court."

Langford isn't shy when it comes to speaking his mind, which is why Kansas coach Roy Williams admitted to being nervous when reporters asked Langford questions yesterday about guarding Anthony.

"You guys like him," Williams said. "He says some wild stuff sometimes."

Williams isn't shy about handing out praise when it comes to Langford, however, especially after watching him run by defenders in the Marquette game.

"Keith has matured so much more in understanding the consistency of his effort, of how hard he has to play all the time," Williams said.

Langford says he gets his emotion from his mother, Charlene Taylor, a former basketball player herself at the University of Texas-Arlington. Now a high school counselor, Taylor coached Langford's basketball teams during the summer when he was growing up, and he says she didn't hesitate to bench him and chew him out when she felt he wasn't playing hard enough.

Earlier this year, Taylor caused quite a stir in Lawrence when she posted some comments critical of Williams' coaching on an Internet message board after Kansas lost to North Carolina in the Preseason National Invitation Tournament. When pressed about it, Taylor didn't back away from her comments.

"I get every bit of my personality from my mother," Langford said. "We've been through a lot, and everything about me stems from her."

Langford's teammates know how important he is to their success, and took notice of how hard he worked in the summer.

"He's been the difference-maker," Hinrich said. "All good teams need at least three really good scorers. This year, he's grown so much and become a lot more mature. He's not just a scorer anymore."

And this year, Langford has come to the Final Four prepared. Last year, he left his spare pair of shoes back at the hotel, and he didn't have the option of changing at halftime when Kansas lost to Maryland in the semifinals.

He'll bring about four pairs to tonight's game, just to be safe. But if Langford plays like he has been recently, it's a good bet that he won't need them.

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