Miles: Don't give up on us yet

A tumble and a tweak of a previously twisted ankle wasn't going to bend, break or otherwise deter Aaron Miles. With less than a minute elapsed in the second half of Monday night's Border War at Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas' point guard had careened awkwardly to the baseline after a steal and drive to the bucket. He came up limping after the layup and headed straight to the Jayhawk bench. Shortly thereafter, he was helped to the locker room for treatment.

He left with KU leading rival Missouri, 31-27. When he returned to James Naismith Court at the 15:43 media timeout, the score was knotted at 38 and MU had the ball. With Miles back in charge, Kansas promptly went on a 10-4 run. Though the game remained tight, the Jayhawks--and, specifically, Miles--never let the Tigers claw back into a tie or take the lead in a game that featured eight deadlocks and 17 lead changes.

The Jayhawks thus earned a 65-56 win that kept them tied atop the conference standings heading into Saturday's 3 p.m. showdown in with Texas Tech, a league co-leader along with Texas.

Miles finished the evening with a line of 11 points, three rebounds, two steals and eight assists against two turnovers in 30 minutes' action. As usual, the Portland, Ore., junior's stats scarcely scratch the surface of his story. Just ask teammate Keith Langford.

"A lot people think that just because he's not a 40-percent three-point shooter, he's not good," said the Fort Worth junior. "That's not what makes a good player. To hell with percentages and things like that. It's what you do for your team, the small things."

"Internet geeks can talk about his free-throw percentage or his assist-to-turnover ratio or whatever. When he's in the game, our team is better."

That's beyond dispute.

When Miles was on the floor, Kansas looked like a team on the rise. They looked like a group fast growing into a contender for league and, perhaps, national honors. When he wasn't...well, all you had to do was look at Missouri, a team without a true point guard.

The Tigers, once ranked as high as third in the national polls, are in freefall. Mizzou is now 9-9 overall, 4-4 in the Big 12. Missouri has seen a promising season turn pretty much pointless, primarily because it lacks floor leadership. Though we know you hate to hear this if you're a Kansas fan, if you mixed a player like Miles into Missouri's talent pool, the Tigers would be scary good and there wouldn't be a website calling for coach Quin Snyder's ouster. As it is, MU is a .500 team whose only real shot at an NCAA Tournament bid now seems to be winning the Big 12 Tournament's automatic berth.

Just how important is a point guard to playing at an elite level? Well, Miles alone had eight assists Monday night, establishing the tone for his team. The Jayhawks banked 18 dimes on 25 baskets. Meanwhile, Missouri tallied eight assists as a team.

Center Arthur Johnson, with three, had as many assists as Jimmy McKinney. MicKinney is the guy who's been forced into running the point for MU and is so obviously out of position. Back to Miles, though.

Last season he helped slay the Tigers in Columbia with a fortunate fling from the three-point line that evened a close game and set up Kirk Hinrich's game-winner. That shot was luck, no question. But luck had nothing to do with Miles' performance Monday night. This was about his leadership, his will, his charisma. It was about the trust and confidence he so obviously generates among the Jayhawks when he's out there running the show.

"He really had it going tonight," Missouri guard Rickey Paulding said of Miles. "We tried. The effort was there. We just couldn't slow him down."

That much was evident throughout the evening, and not just from Miles' physical presence.

I will give you an example. In the first half, freshman center David Padgett was struggling against the Tiger's strong senior center, Arthur Johnson. After Padgett stumbled out of position and fumbled away yet another defensive rebound to Johnson, Miles went straight for Padgett. He got right in Padgett's face, bumped his chest and screamed, "grab the *%&#! ball." He didn't relent. As the Jayhawks gathered during the ensuing timeout, Miles kept in Padgett's grill, repeating his command several times.

When play resumed, Padgett had a different demeanor. He had a fiercer approach and didn't shy from contact. He pulled in three straight rebounds.

"Maybe I'm realizing I need to do that a little more. I'm not one who normally likes to do that type of stuff," Miles said. "Emotions drove me to do it. But I'm glad I did it because David stepped up, man."

"Myself, Keith and Wayne, being the leaders, we've got to be able to step up there and not be afraid to say things. Do whatever it takes to make this team better, say whatever needs to be said."

Later in the game, at winning time, Kansas led 61-56 and MU had the ball. After a timeout with 1:19 to play, the Tigers swung the ball inside to Johnson, who'd backed Padgett into the low block. Johnson swooped up with a chip-shot hook, and Padgett held his ground. The ball careened off the rim, and Miles scooped up the rebound and jetted up the floor. He was fouled just past midcourt, and with 1:03 remaining, calmly stepped up and hit both ends of a one-and-one to make it a three-possession game and essentially put matters out of reach.

Afterward, Miles didn't mention his free throws. Instead he talked about Padgett's play.

"David's seven feet down there, and sometimes I don't think he understands that," Miles said. "But at that point he did. He slid his feet and put his hands up tall. If you're seven foot and you put your hands up, that makes you nine feet plus or whatever. He did a great job and we needed that."

Kansas now stands 14-4. With a 6-1 record in the Big 12 the Jayhawks are tied with Texas and Texas Tech in first place. But as everybody knows, KU reached this point, essentially, by feasting on lower-tier conference foes. The Jayhawks now are amid a stretch of games that coach Bill Self readily identified as a key run in the season.

Following Saturday's second-half collapse and loss at Iowa State, Self didn't mince words with his team--though Miles used the kinder, gentler euphemism "challenged" to describe the KU coach's message to his team.

"After we lost that game, coach challenged all of us to step up and play some defense," Miles said. "Tonight everybody responded. That was big. The second half at Iowa State we played poor defense--team defense, on-ball defense, whatever, we played terrible. This time, we just sucked it up."

"We're in the heart of conference play. Teams have been able to scout each other, know each other's style of play. Now it comes down to playing tough on the defensive end, getting stops and getting rebounds. People have scouted your offense. The thing that is going to separate teams is playing good, solid, tough defense."

OK, it wasn't exactly Punxsutawney Phil emerging from Gobbler's Knob to forecast the fate of winter, But after he essentially sent MU's season deeper into a freeze and pushed his own team closer to springtime splendor, Miles quietly made his own prediction in the waning hours of Groundhog Day.

"Don't give up on us yet. I know we haven't got everybody believing but we believe in each other," he said. "We're just playing to get better as a team. That's all I can say. Come March and April, we want to still be playing."

At this point, though, at least one thing seems certain beyond a shadow of a doubt. The Jayhawks' journey this season is driven by Miles and as he goes, so will they.


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