- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

ST. LOUIS — Even though the rest of the world pretty much saw it coming, Kansas guard Michael Lee said he was “shocked” that his coach, Roy Williams, would take off for North Carolina after last season.

“I never thought that Coach would leave, especially after two Final Four runs,” Lee, a junior, said yesterday. “Obviously, he made a decision he felt was best for him and his family, so I don’t fault him for that. At first some people thought it was terrible. But change is not necessarily a bad thing.”

No, indeed. It can, in fact, be a good thing. Kansas not only lost Williams but two outstanding seniors, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, both NBA lottery picks. Yet here are the Jayhawks, two games from San Antonio and the Final Four.

Seeded fourth, Kansas (23-8) plays ninth-seeded Alabama-Birmingham (22-9) tonight at Edward Jones Dome followed by Georgia Tech (25-9) and Nevada (25-8). The winners meet Sunday.

This is a different Kansas team from recent editions, and not just because Collison and Hinrich are gone. Coach Bill Self is, in some ways, the antithesis of Williams. Self is affable, accessible and less tightly wound.

“I like his demeanor,” said former Kansas star Danny Manning, who is working with the program as an unofficial coach. “He’s stern when he needs to be, he’s caring and loving when he needs to be, and he’s very easygoing. He makes you feel comfortable in his presence.”

Self can coach, too. He came to Kansas after establishing himself as a hot item at Illinois (78-24) and Tulsa (74-27). Before that, he rebuilt the program at Oral Roberts.

Yet for all his folksy, native Oklahoman charm, Self has fashioned a more rugged, feistier, defense-oriented team than what Jayhawks fans were used to under Williams. This required a period of adjustment.

“We were brought up one way, then we basically had throw all that out and bring in some new stuff,” Lee said.

Said junior forward Jeff Graves: “I knew how his coaching style was a little bit. It was a little hard for the guys to get used to. At the same time, we had to come together as a team. I think we did.”

Before the Big12 season, Kansas lost to Stanford, which ended the regular-season ranked No.1, and Nevada, the surprise team of the tournament. The Jayhawks started conference play with three straight wins but went 6-5 the next month. Injuries were part of the problem.

“I think we were on the same page by Christmas,” Self said. “I don’t think we were playing like we wanted to play by Christmas. You can be on the same page and not play well. I think that was the case as much as anything else.

“We just didn’t play worth a flip for a stretch. But they’re good players. Players have to make plays. All we do is put them in a position to make plays. It’s just taken some time.”

Even without Collison and Hinrich, Kansas had talent. Kansas always has talent. Forward Wayne Simien, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound junior, was voted third-team All-American even though he has been bothered by a nagging groin injury and hasn’t practiced much lately. But this is nothing new for Simien, who has always battled injuries. Last year he hurt his shoulder and missed the second half of the season.

“It’s frustrating to him,” Self said, “but he finds a way to give himself a pep talk and get to that magic level every game.”

Guards J.J. Giddens (foot) and Keith Langford (knee) also have missed considerable practice time, but the Jayhawks have still won six of their last seven. Apparently, they now have a full sense of Self.

“I think maybe the toughest thing,” he said, “was, hey, you go to back-to-back Final Fours and here’s a new guy coming in saying what you did was good, but now we’re going to do it a different way.”

Langford said he saw Williams’ departure as a chance to “show that a lot of [the success] was us and not what Coach Williams did.” He said he knew the adjustment would be difficult, at least for a while, “but the coaches have done a lot for my all-around game. I’m a better defensive player, I’m passing the ball better and a lot has to do with my maturity, also. He’s the coaching change I needed.”

As a guard at Oklahoma State, Self twice went up against UAB coach Mike Anderson, who played for Nolan Richardson at Tulsa. The teams split. Anderson went on to work for Richardson at Tulsa and Arkansas. When he got the UAB job two years ago, he employed the pressing, aggressive philosophy he learned from Richardson.

“Mike was a good player,” Self said. “He was fast and quick and active, and he played just like he coaches.”

UAB likes to wear out opponents with a quick pace and swarming defense. So far during the tournament, the style has worked pretty well. This week Self has tried to simulate the pressure by putting as many as eight players on the court against his starters. He said he didn’t especially like what he saw, but “I think they’ve gotten the message about what potentially could happen if they get soft with the ball.”

Some of the Blazers’ players seemed to be amused at Kansas’ tactics.

“You can put seven guys on the court to try and simulate it, but it’s not realistic,” swingman Sidney Ball said. “There will only be five on five, and it’s hard to get ready for.”

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