Portland pals buoy Jayhawks
Aaron Miles and Michael Lee work to prove their potential
For Aaron Miles, it has been two seasons of living up to expectations. For Michael Lee, it has been one season of redemption.
Although coach Roy Williams downplays it, Lee going to Kansas amounted to a 2-for-1 deal. The Jayhawks really wanted Miles, the McDonald's All-American from Jefferson High, as their point guard. Sometimes in college basketball, a school signs the star's buddy just to get the star.
But something happened along the way to two Final Four appearances in two seasons. Lee, also from Jefferson, became the sixth man on a team that played for the national championship Monday night.
At the start of the season, Lee wondered whether he belonged in Lawrence, Kan., on one of the nation's top teams. Even with his longtime friend Miles continually propping him up, he questioned his own ability.
Blessed with an athletic body, a willingness to work hard, a scholarship and an opportunity, Lee needed only to quiet the doubters. He played sparingly last season, and rarely through this season's first five games. On top of everything else, Williams chewed him out for slacking off in practice. 'I just started feeling sorry for myself,' Lee says.
Then came an 11-point, eight-rebound game against Oregon in front of the home folks at the Rose Garden in December. The Ducks whipped the Jayhawks, but Lee had found his game. Suddenly the Kansas bench went from weak to decent. Lee was averaging 16 minutes per game entering Monday's final, shooting 54 percent (20 of 37) on 3-pointers and defending well on the perimeter (Williams assigned Lee to Arizona sharpshooter Salim Stoudamire in the closing seconds of their Elite Eight game).
Meanwhile, Miles keeps pace on a track that could lead him to the NBA someday. At his best, Miles has been sensational, rarely turning the ball over, orchestrating a devastating fastbreak and stifling the opposing point guard. At his worst, he makes poor decisions and turnovers and clanks his shots. But the bad games are fewer and far between.
'A lot of times what he does gets overshadowed by criticism. And that shouldn't be the case,' Lee tells the Kansas City Star. 'He's a little underrated, especially when it comes to defense.'
With one more Final Four appearance, Miles and Lee would match the total of greats such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.
Miles' transition to college ball was eased by having experienced players around him Ñ Drew Gooden and Jeff Boschee last year, and Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison for two years. Next year, Miles will have to raise his game to another level for the Jayhawks to remain national title contenders.
Hinrich and Collison will be gone, and seniors-to-be Bryant Nash and Jeff Graves, although good role players, do not have star quality. Miles and fellow juniors-to-be Keith Langford and Wayne Simien, who missed half the season with a dislocated shoulder, will be Kansas' best players.
The freshman crop features 7-footer David Padgett, athletic wing J.R. Giddens, guard Omar Wilkes and point guard Jeremy Case. Giddens and Wilkes will be eyeing Lee's minutes, but who would bet against Lee hanging on to his niche now, especially with Hinrich gone? The 6-3 rock from Portland persevered, knows the system and will never take his spot with the Jayhawks for granted.
'If people come in behind me and they play over me, that wouldn't even bother me at all,' Lee tells the Topeka Capital-Journal. 'I just want what's best for the team.'