Different, but good

"Don't give up on us yet." That was the message delivered by Aaron Miles in early February.

Kansas had endured four losses, including an embarrassing defeat by Richmond at Allen Fieldhouse. After losing to Iowa State, the Jayhawks had returned home and defended their home court over border rival Missouri and earning a desperately needed morale-boosting win. Following the game, Miles told Phog.net, "Don't give up on us yet. I know we haven't got everybody believing, but we believe in each other."

Miles was right. People wanted to believe, but not everyone believed.

"When we beat Michigan State early, that was like fools' gold. Everyone got a sense that everything was OK, and that we were going to maintain at this level. But I knew in my heart that we were not a good practice team. It was going to dip a little," said coach Bill Self.

"After Christmas, we became a much better practice teams and strides were made."

It would make a nice story if the mid-season Missouri victory and Miles declaration acted as a turning point for the team, propelling them into a string of well-fought victories leading into the NCAA tournament. That was not exactly how it happened. In the month of February the Jayhawks suffered three consecutive road conference losses, to Oklahoma State, Nebraska, and Texas. Although the win-loss record was not reflecting it yet, Kansas was getting better.

"When we went to Texas and got our butts beat, that was the turning point," stated Self.

"We played hard, we played the right way and they just manhandled us. However, we left there feeling better about ourselves. We had Oklahoma and Nebraska after that and played terrifically in both games. That led to the big win at Missouri, which was what keyed it for us," said Self.

The dramatic victory at Missouri ended the regular season for both teams and spoiled the Tiger's senior night and final games in Hearnes. But for the Jayhawks it was about more than one game, one win. It was a culmination of the season and a symbol of things to come.

"We had some things not go our way, which was good for us, because our team needed toughness desperately," said Self. "This team has really grown up, because it took guys a long time to realize that Nick and Kirk weren't here anymore."

There was someone else who also wasn't there any more. After a drawn out and dramatic exit, Roy Williams had returned to North Carolina to coach his alma mater. After fifteen years, four final fours and nine conference titles, the three-time National Coach of Year Roy Williams was wearing a lighter shade of blue. And things were different.

"It probably took some time. But when things go well, it's easy to move forward. When things don't go well, people gravitate to what was good," acknowledged Self.

"When we weren't playing well, the players easily began to think, 'Why aren't we doing it the way we did it before?' Every team goes through phases where they don't play well. Teams have off years or off weeks. And we went through that. It was more about bad play than about the transition."

That was what people called it, of course. Fans and the media talked about a transition period or referred to the players "buying into the system." But the underlying implication was there. Kansas was still Kansas, but Bill Self was not exactly Roy Williams. It was not a question of better or worse, but it was definitely different.

"I'm not him," said Self. "I'm not going to try to be him. All I can do is be me."

"When I took the job, I knew there would be comparisons. When you leave Illinois to follow a guy who won 80 percent of his games, there's a good chance you're going to disappoint some people," said Self.

In college basketball, there is no question that any coach at any school will invariably disappoint some people. But if Jayhawks fans were feeling disillusioned mid season, that seems to have been wiped away these past weeks. After entering the tournament as a #4 seed, Kansas has earned three decisive wins and advanced to the Elite Eight. Many fans are beginning to do what Aaron Miles challenged them to seven weeks ago – to believe.

This afternoon, Bill Self's Jayhawks will take on Georgia Tech for a trip to the Final Four. And Jayhawks fans have not given up.


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