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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Kansas Finally Is Believing in Self

Fourth-seeded Jayhawks play in the St. Louis Regional final today against third-seeded Georgia Tech after accepting new coach's philosophy.

March 28, 2004|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — It never reached the level of a mutiny, but there were times earlier this season when Kansas players questioned whether Bill Self was the right man to coach one of college basketball's most successful programs.

Team meetings were called so players could voice their grievances. Self, whose strident emphasis on defense was a change from previous coach Roy Williams, ended each gathering with the same message.

"He made it clear it was going to be his way," junior guard Keith Langford said.

Now the Jayhawks understand it was the only way.

Despite having to replace a coach and two All-Americans, Kansas finds itself back in a familiar position today -- playing in a regional final with a chance to earn its third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament's Final Four.

The fourth-seeded Jayhawks (24-8) play third-seeded Georgia Tech (26-9) at 11:40 a.m. PST in the Edward Jones Dome for the St. Louis Regional title.

A month ago, it seemed unlikely Kansas would get this far.

The Jayhawks had lost their fourth consecutive road game in Big 12 Conference play, falling to Texas, 82-67, on Feb. 23. Self, however, could see his players were doing a better job of carrying out his instructions.

"We left there feeling better about ourselves," he said.

Kansas has won seven of eight games since then, including a resounding 100-74 victory over Alabama Birmingham in the regional semifinals Friday.

Looking back, Self said some players had trouble accepting that changes were the only way the Jayhawks could compensate for losing their top two offensive players from last season -- All-Americans Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich.

"This team has really grown up, because it took guys a long time to realize that Nick and Kirk were not here anymore," Self said. "We've had to adjust and learn how to score without those guys."

This is the third time Self has coached a team to the Elite Eight, after doing it with Illinois in 2001 and Tulsa in 2000. His teams are 13-5 in the NCAA tournament in the last six seasons.

Standing in the way of Self's first Final Four appearance is an athletic and deep Georgia Tech team that overcame the loss of leading scorer B.J. Elder to defeat Nevada, 62-57, in the regional semifinals Friday.

Coach Paul Hewitt said Elder, who sprained his right ankle when a Nevada player fell on him in the second minute of the game, was experiencing soreness but no swelling Saturday and would continue to receive treatment.

"I'm anticipating that he will play," Hewitt said. "How much [he can play] will be a game-time decision."

Senior guard Marvin Lewis said he didn't expect Georgia Tech to make any sweeping changes if Elder, a junior guard, is sidelined.

"We might change certain plays in a half-court set," Lewis said. "But overall we're still trying to get out in transition from our defense. Each person is going to have to step up and make opportunities for [himself]."

Lewis did that Friday by scoring 23 points, 12 above his average. The Yellow Jackets continued to survive on their defense, holding Nevada to 21.2% shooting in the second half of a comeback victory.

Kansas will challenge Georgia Tech with a balanced attack featuring the inside presence of forward Wayne Simien and the outside shooting of freshman guard J.R. Giddens. Simien, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound junior, had 30 points and nine rebounds against Alabama Birmingham.

"Simien is a beast down low," Lewis said. "We have to keep him under control."

That job will fall mainly to Georgia Tech center Luke Schenscher, a 7-1 junior from Australia who said he was "looking forward to the challenge."

Something will have to give in today's game.

Kansas is 23-0 this season when scoring at least 70 points; Georgia Tech is 23-0 when holding opponents under 70.

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Tulsa Connection

Kansas' Bill Self is the latest coach who used Tulsa as a springboard to greater recognition in the college ranks. A look at former Tulsa coaches since 1980 and how each did in the NCAA tournament:

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