Kansas Coach Bill Self hadn’t planned to chase his past, but the Associated Press top 25 poll left him no choice.
The Jayhawks were second only to top-ranked and undefeated Illinois, Self’s former team, for seven consecutive weeks from Dec. 6 through Jan. 23, then slipped in the poll after a 21-point loss at Villanova. The Jayhawks returned to the No. 2 spot Monday.
Although they won’t remain there after Monday’s 80-79 double-overtime loss to unranked Texas Tech, the Jayhawks’ pursuit of the Fighting Illini might continue until the Final Four in St. Louis.
And wouldn’t that be a blast from Self’s past.
“They’ve done some great things,” Self said of Illinois. “It is fun to watch from the outside, but I’m only thinking about Kansas. You can’t coach in two places at once.”
His efforts are appreciated in Lawrence, Kan.
Self’s guidance has helped the Jayhawks overcome numerous injuries -- including the loss of senior All-American forward Wayne Simien for four games because of thumb surgery -- while maintaining the lead in the Big 12 Conference.
Kansas, 20-2 overall and 10-1 in the Big 12, holds a one-game lead over eighth-ranked Oklahoma State with five regular-season conference games remaining. Despite the loss at Villanova on Jan. 22 and Texas Tech’s upset, Kansas has accomplished more than most this season.
The Jayhawks had impressive nonconference victories over Georgia Tech and Kentucky while Simien was sidelined, and they have played the nation’s toughest schedule, according to the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
Kansas adapted well after its second-year coach altered the offense, in hopes of hanging on without Simien, and the group might be better off for the experience.
A No. 1 regional seeding in the NCAA tournament is within the Jayhawks’ grasp, and that’s what they’re chasing.
“We’ve had a pretty amazing record so far, considering how we’ve kind of had to piece it together,” Self said. “There have been some weird things that have happened to me in my coaching career, but to lose Wayne and then beat Georgia Tech when you’re down by 16, and to win at Kentucky, doing it with guys who haven’t really played much before, that was pretty remarkable to me.”
Simien, who leads Kansas with averages of 18.8 points and 11 rebounds, injured the thumb on his left -- non-shooting -- hand Dec. 18 in a 64-60 victory over South Carolina. The 6-foot-9 Simien had sat out 28 games because of injuries in his first three seasons, including 22 in his sophomore year after having suffered a dislocated right shoulder.
“When Wayne went down [this season], we changed everything,” Self said. “We knew if we didn’t change everything, we probably would still be OK in the end [of the season], but we weren’t going to be able to win the games without him.”
Instead of running the offense down low, Self went the other way, relying on perimeter players.
Of course, a midseason overhaul isn’t as risky when senior guards Keith Langford and Aaron Miles are on the perimeter.
Self encouraged Miles, a fourth-year starter at point guard, to penetrate more, which opened space for Langford, second on Kansas in scoring at 15.5 points, and put others in good scoring position.
Miles, Kansas’ all-time assists leader, executed Self’s plan, and the Jayhawks surprised themselves.
On Jan. 1, Kansas rallied from a 16-point deficit in a 70-68 overtime victory against Georgia Tech, then ranked ninth. Langford scored a team-high 18 points.
The Jayhawks outscored Kentucky, then ranked eighth, by 10 in the second half of a 65-59 victory Jan. 9 at Lexington, Ky. Langford struggled in a three-for-13 shooting performance, but freshman forward C.J. Giles contributed 10 points.
“Wayne going down helped us develop a couple of younger guys,” Self said. “We also became more of a penetrate-and-pitch-type team, which has really got us more aggressive at attacking the lane and the basket.
“Now, we’re kind of combining the two. We have a couple of different modes now. Hopefully, that makes us harder to guard.”
Kansas adjusted to Simien’s absence better than the powerful forward did to playing with a thumb brace for seven games.
He struggled at times, especially from the free-throw line, but his thumb apparently healed well. Having Simien at full strength is comforting for Self.
“From a record standpoint, I couldn’t imagine our record being better, especially with the time Wayne was out,” Self said. “We said all along that we wanted to be playing our best ball in February, and we’ve got Wayne back and [using] both hands now, so we think we’re on track to play a lot better ball.”
Self led Kansas to the Elite Eight last season, and the team’s four seniors -- Langford, Miles, Simien and reserve guard Michael Lee -- hope to reach the NCAA title game again after having lost as freshmen to Syracuse.
There were hard feelings in Champaign, Ill., when Self bolted after three seasons to succeed Roy Williams, who left Kansas for North Carolina. Shortly before leaving Illinois, Self had agreed to a five-year contract extension.
Nothing would please Fighting Illini fans more than a Final Four victory over Kansas.
“With the way it went down with me leaving, it wasn’t in those players’ best interests to stay in contact with me,” Self said. “That could have created some ill feelings with the new staff, and I didn’t want to do that, so I removed myself completely from that situation, but I’m happy for the players.
“My opinion is that we’re a better team than we were before Wayne got hurt, and we’ve found a way to win. We’ve overcome some situations that might help us down the road, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. I guess we’ll see.”
Pacific, which appeared in the AP poll for the first time in school history last week, has moved to 19th from 24th.
The Tigers (21-2, 15-0 in the Big West), who have the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 17 games, have won 28 in a row in conference play.
“The good thing is that we’re starting to get some national attention,” Coach Bob Thomason said. “People see that we’ve got some meat in our schedule and we’re playing well.
“If we keep on winning, it gives us a chance at some publicity for not only us but for our conference. It can only help.”
The Atlantic Coast Conference tops the RPI chart and the Pacific 10 is second, but the Big East might be the deepest.
The Big East, which could receive as many as six NCAA tournament bids, has been bolstered by, among others, Georgetown (16-6, 8-3 in the Big East).
The Hoyas, who finished last season with eight consecutive conference losses, have responded to first-year Coach John Thompson III and hope to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2000-01 season.
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Waiting for Wayne
Not many college teams could handle the loss of a player the caliber of Wayne Simien, the Kansas All-American candidate who sat out four games because of an injured thumb. But the Jayhawks responded with four victories:
Dec. 22: d. Wisconsin Milwaukee, 73-62
Jan. 1: d. Georgia Tech, 70-68
Jan. 5: d. Texas A&M;, 65-60
Jan. 9: d. Kentucky, 65-59