Feeling Good!

Xavier Henry (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Xavier Henry began his freshman season on a shooting tear, averaging 18 points through his first nine games while making a blistering 55.6 percent of his shots.

He set a KU freshman record for most points in a debut game (27), exploded for a career-high 31 against La Salle in mid-December, and was viewed by at least this reporter to be the best Jayhawk freshman since Danny Manning in 1984-85.

Yeah, he was seemingly that good, a player who scored almost as effortless as he breathed with a picture-perfect shot that famed high school scout Howard Garfinkel might describe as soft as drifting fog.

But then something happened. Over the next 14 games, Xavier Henry averaged just 9.8 points on 33.8 percent field-goal shooting. However, he never stopped believing, never stopped shooting. And now, a month since he exploded for his career high against La Salle, Henry seems to have regained his magic touch.

After five straight games of failing to score at least 10 points, Henry has hit double digits the last three games, including a team-high 16 points (5-9 FG, 3-5 three-pointers) in KU's 73-59 victory over Iowa State on Saturday night in Allen Fieldhouse. He's averaging 14.3 points during this three-game span.

"I just know if I keep shooting the ball, I'm going to get better," Henry said after the Iowa State game. "I'm a shooter. It's not like I've never shot the ball before so I'm going to keep missing every single day. Just keep practicing hard, and it'll come around."

While he shot just 3-of-9 from the field in KU's 59-54 victory at Texas A&M Monday night, Henry still played a tough 35 minutes and tied for team lead with 12 points, making key free throws and grabbing clutch rebounds down the stretch. Henry, who had six boards and went 6-of-8 from the free-throw line, broke a 54-tie with a free throw with 3:33 remaining to put KU ahead for good, and then hit two free throws with 26 seconds left, which iced the game at 59-54.

KU coach Bill Self has been quite pleased with Henry's play the last three contests.

"He was as good a player as we had in the game (against A&M)," Self said on his Hawk Talk radio show Monday night, "and when we played Iowa State, he was about as good a player as we had in the game, and when we played Texas, he may have been as good as player as we had then."

Henry has come a long way since the K-State game at Manhattan on Jan. 30, when he scored six points with four turnovers in a season-low 16 minutes. The freshman, who seemed to have trouble finding himself in the raucous atmosphere in Bramlage Coliseum, followed that game with just three points (0-4 FG) in 17 minutes at Colorado, and then scored nine points (3-9 FG) with four turnovers versus Nebraska.

But he's turned it on these last three games, with two of his performances coming in hostile environments at Austin and in College Station Monday night.

Henry credits his teammates for encouraging him during his cold shooting and assistant coach Joe Dooley for working with his shot. And then there was coach Bill Self's motivational words.

"Just play hard on defense and offense will take care of itself," Self told Henry.

And that's what the 6-6 swingman with the magnetic smile and NBA body has been doing all this time. Sure, he heard all the talk about his "slump." But he's never been too concerned; Henry's just kept on playing.

"Even when I wasn't shooting too well, I was playing defense as hard as I could," Henry said. "I felt comfortable out there. It was just my offense wasn't going. Now that my offense is going, I'm still playing the same game."

Senior point guard Sherron Collins is glad Henry is finding his rhythm again. He's been telling Henry, ‘If you miss two, you got an open shot, shoot it again. ... He's been thinking the next play. He's been practicing hard, probably the hardest on the team right now. It's just working. He's got to get it back, and he's getting it back."

With the No. 1 Jayhawks at 25-1 and 11-0 in Big 12 play, Henry will be a huge factor in KU's quest the rest of the way. The Jayhawks have proven stars in Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, an emerging star in Marcus Morris, but 'X' Henry is the team's 'X' factor as the Jayhawks look to capture their sixth-straight Big 12 regular-season championship, a conference tournament title, and then a national championship.

His jump shot and scoring can break open games and open up space and opportunities for his teammates. And his toughness can help KU win some grind-it-out games like it did against the Aggies

Collins, for one, thinks Henry will continue to shine.

When a reporter asked Henry after the Iowa State game if he felt like he's finally back in a groove, Collins beat his freshman teammate to the reply with a simple, yet emphatic answer that left no doubt that 'X' has returned to his old form.

"Yes," Collins said with a wide smile.

Self couldn't be prouder of Henry for overcoming his struggles and getting back on track.

"He's a great kid," Self said. "He's a very conscientious kid that really wants to fit in. Here he is, ‘be aggressive, be aggressive, be aggressive.' In his mind, ‘I want to be that, but I also want to fit in.' He's kind of getting it figured out. He's doing a really nice job.

"He went through a funk that I think was the best thing to happen to him, because he had to show some toughness to get out of it. And now I think he's feeling pretty good about himself."

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