Friday, March 23, 2001

Midwest Regional preview


New Illini coach could pull off rare feat

The Associated Press

        SAN ANTONIO — Illinois hasn't been this far in the NCAA Tournament since 1989. But Illini coach Bill Self has.

        At this time last year, Self was guiding seventh-seeded Tulsa within five points of the Final Four. The Fighting Illini were back in Champaign with then-coach Lon Kruger, lamenting a second-round loss to Florida.

        A few months later, Kruger left for the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, and Self replaced him. That hiring looks even better now as the top-seeded Fighting Illini (26-7) prepare to play fourth-seeded Kansas (26-6) in a Midwest regional semifinal tonight.

        With a victory, Self can pull off the rare feat of guiding two teams to regional finals in consecutive years.

        Things clicked, partly because the players are more comfortable in his up-tempo style than they were in Kruger's methodical system.

        “I think he's brought a little more leeway to the game,” said point guard Frank Williams, who under Self blossomed into the Big Ten player of the year as a sophomore after an inconsistent freshman season under Kruger. “He lets us make mistakes out there, and he lets us correct them.”

        Self said the trick with Williams was setting strict parameters while letting him do whatever he wants within those margins.

        “I don't want to take away his imagination. He's got the best imagination of any player I've ever coached or been around,” Self said. “Last year, in a structured situation, maybe he felt like he was tied up too much.”

        Self knows Kansas well.

        He was a graduate assistant under Larry Brown on the 1985-86 team that lost to Duke in the Final Four, then coached against and scouted the Jayhawks during seven seasons as an Oklahoma State assistant.

        ARIZONA-MISSISSIPPI: The No.2-seeded Wildcats have a few inches on the Rebels, their Midwest Regional semifinal opponent. Such as when 7-foot-1 Loren Woods is going up against 6-8, 255-pound Rahim Lockhart. Or when anybody guards Jason Harrison, Ole Miss' 5-5 point guard.

        “We're the underdog at every position,” Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes said of his No.3-seeded team, which will play its first regional semifinal ever.

        The Wildcats, who are going to the round of 16 for the fourth time in six years, aren't buying it.

        “Their size isn't really the typical college basketball size ...” Arizona forward Richard Jefferson said. “But they do what they need to to win, and that says a lot about them.”

       Complete tournament coverage at Cincinnati.com



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