Heart and Sole

Keith Langford (and his new shoes) helped Kansas stay perfect despite the loss of forward Wayne Simien
January 10, 2005

Was it the shoes? After Kansas guard Keith Langford scored just two first-half points in the No. 2 Jayhawks' showdown with No. 9 Georgia Tech in Lawrence last Saturday, the superstitious senior made a beeline to the locker room to perform his usual luck-changing ritual: He replaced his sneakers with a new pair. Then he went out and scored 16 points, including a twisting jumper with 3.3 seconds to go in overtime that gave Kansas a 70--68 come-from-behind win, preserved an undefeated (9--0) season and gave the raucous, sellout crowd at Allen Fieldhouse a New Year's Day to remember. "The new shoes helped," Langford said afterward, "but also I stopped trying to do too much."

Langford had been so eager for the rematch with the team that knocked Kansas out of last year's NCAA tournament that he didn't fall asleep until 3 a.m. on New Year's Eve, despite an 11 p.m. team curfew. When the two teams met last March, Langford had fouled out in overtime with the game tied, and he had to watch from the bench as the Yellow Jackets pulled ahead to earn a trip to the Final Four. "I always wondered what might have happened if I had stayed in the game," he says.

Saturday's game wasn't do-or-die for either team, but it was Kansas's first game against a ranked opponent without leading scorer Wayne Simien, the Jayhawks' All-America senior forward who is recovering from surgery to repair a ligament in his left thumb. That meant more of the scoring burden would fall to Langford, Kansas's second-leading scorer, who was averaging 15.6 points a game through Sunday. "I had been hearing it all week--from friends, family, coaches, even strangers at the grocery store," he says. "'Hey, Langford, you're gonna have a big game on Saturday!'"

Those predictions seemed wildly off the mark at the outset. As Langford and his teammates struggled to execute their new penetrate-and-pitch offense (without Simien, they've abandoned their usual high-low game), Georgia Tech ran out to a 16-point lead. The Jayhawks cut the deficit to seven at halftime, then spread their offense and played like the No. 2 team in the country, demonstrating a grittiness that coach Bill Self had to love. "This has to show our team what we are capable of," Langford said afterward. "This team is not about one person."

Though it pains Self to see Simien, who missed 22 games as a sophomore with a dislocated right shoulder, sit on the bench in a suit, his absence is giving freshmen Alex Galindo, C.J. Giles, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun and junior walk-on Christian Moody important experience. The five combined for 18 points and 22 rebounds on Saturday. "We've been hot and cold this season in part because our young players haven't played at the level I think they can," says Self. "Though I hate it for Wayne, playing without him forces us to develop depth, which I think will make us better in February and March."

Simien could be back at the end of this month, and in the meantime Langford will do his part to keep the Jayhawks rolling. The hightops he wore in the first half on Saturday are already in the trash, "never to be seen again," he says. Kansas fans are hoping that the magic in his new pair can continue.

Pro Prospects

NBA scouts evaluate the potential of Syracuse AllAmerica forward Hakim Warrick. The 6'8", 219-pound senior was averaging 20.1 points and 8.9 rebounds at week's end:

"He's a very unorthodox player, being so long and thin, and he doesn't have a game that makes him position-specific: He doesn't have three-man range or ball handling skills, but he also doesn't have four-man size.... Another question is his ability to play man-to-man defense because for four years at Syracuse he's played zone. I'll assume he can learn.... On the plus side, he's probably the most athletic player in all of college basketball, and he competes.... I don't think he's going to start in our league--he's not good enough offensively--but as far as his size, strength and skinniness, I just don't care. I'm a Warrick fan." Verdict: Possible lottery pick but not a star.

COLOR PHOTOGREG NELSON (LANGFORD) RUBY SLIPPERS Langford (5) had the magic touch as Kansas avenged its Georgia Tech loss. COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (WARRICK)