- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Bill Self knew without Wayne Simien against Georgia Tech that he needed to shake up practice last week or else Kansas wasn't going to win.
The Jayhawks weren't tough enough. He went as far as to call them soft.
So, he got Kansas' blue and white football jerseys, picking the same numbers his basketball players wear in tank tops. He had helmets ready. The equipment was all lined up, ready to be unveiled at the slightest hint that the Jayhawks were slacking in practice.
"I threatened them that if we didn't have our best practice of the year then I would pull them out," Self told ESPN.com about last Wednesday's practice. The idea isn't new. Michigan State has done it under Tom Izzo. Oklahoma State did it a year ago under Eddie Sutton. But it's still rare.
Self had never reverted to dragging out the football gear. But he didn't expect his player of the year candidate to be out for the New Year's Day special with a thumb injury. So, he had to do something.
"I didn't know if it was a good idea or not but I think it woke them up," Self told ESPN.com after the Jayhawks outlasted Georgia Tech 70-68 in overtime in front of a crowd that might as well have been witnessing the dropping of the ball in Times Square Saturday night. The euphoria was so intense that the noise level had to be at a U2 concert-meter height at times. There was plenty to cheer, especially the Jayhawks' effort, exhibited by them outrebounding Georgia Tech 43-40.
"Kansas played tough down the stretch after we got up on them," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "Kansas toughed it out and made tough shots."
Was it because of the pads?
"We were playing soft in practice and I do think it paid off for this game," said Kansas senior point guard Aaron Miles.
During Wednesday's practice, senior guard Keith Langford said Self abruptly told him to "get fitted for your helmet and I said, 'What? Are you serious?' "
He was. Sure enough, halfway through practice, Self had seen enough of a poor effort "got pissed off and said "go put them on."
"I hated it," Langford said. "But it had an effect, not physical but mental. It was body on body contact. No one got seriously hurt. It was the craziest thing I'd ever seen. We first tried to go up and down but it looked horrible. There were probably more bloopers than there are actual hits. But then it was rebounding and boxing out."
Self took Izzo's rebounding drill but didn't put a bubble on the basket. He said he purposely missed shots to force the players to dive for the loose rebounds and knock each other around.
"I played football in high school but I was a quarterback and I didn't hit anybody," Miles said. "It was funny to see the players who didn't know how to hit."
"I didn't do it (the football pads) to hurt them, but it set the tone," Self said. "We may have won the game without that but I'm not sure we would have. I wanted them to think tougher. We had to be tough, not tougher than Georgia Tech, because they're tough. We had to be tough, though."
Georgia Tech junior guard Jarrett Jack followed up his 29 points against Kansas in the Elite Eight victory last March in St. Louis with 26 Saturday as leading scorer B.J. Elder played only seven minutes because of a strained hamstring. Jack said Kansas was the "grittiest team we'll ever face."
The Jayhawks were down 18-4 early, and trailed by 16 points twice in the first half.
"But after that it was a grind-it-out game and that played to our favor," Self said. "I didn't think we were a grind-it-out team. I thought we were soft."
The questions facing Kansas heading into this monster rematch was KU's toughness. Simien is the heart and soul of this team as well as its strongest player. He injured the thumb against South Carolina on Dec. 20 and underwent surgery on his non-shooting left thumb. He missed the Jayhawks' win over UW-Milwaukee and was slated to be out for another four weeks.
But Simien told ESPN.com after the victory Saturday that he is going to try to play at Kentucky on Jan. 9 (KU opens the Big 12 against Texas A&M first on Jan. 5). Simien said he's getting a soft cast put on Monday and already has one for games made for him that "doesn't bother me at all."
Even if Simien does play against the Wildcats in Kansas' first true road game of the season, the Jayhawks had to discover their toughness without him.
"With Wayne out, our big guys needed to step up," Miles said. "I didn't know if they would make stuff happen or say, 'well I'm a freshman.' Sometimes coach says we're soft but it was the complete opposite out there."
Freshman C.J. Giles, the Jayhawk with the longest reach, bodied up Georgia Tech's 7-1 Luke Schenscher but fouled out in 11 minutes. That left most of the dirty work inside to 6-8 junior (and one-time walk-on) Christian Moody, 6-7 freshman Alex Galindo.
Galindo hit a rainbow 3-pointer to get over a high-flying Isma'il Muhmmad to give the Jayhawks a 65-64 lead in overtime. But just as important were his defensive rebounds to prevent Georgia Tech from finishing plays.
"We wanted to prove that we could win without 'Dub,"' Galindo said of Simien's absence. "We went after every ball."
Georgia Tech senior Anthony McHenry said the Jayhawks were hungrier and that their "big guys got to the offensive glass hard, getting the loose balls that we had to fight for. They played great."
"For us to win this game, we had to be tough and gritty without Wayne," Langford said. "We had to do the small things."
Self isn't ready to announce this as a turning point just yet for a team that is undefeated at 9-0 and considered a national favorite. But the Jayhawks found out about themselves last week in practice and Saturday against the Yellow Jackets that they are a harder lot than they thought. If it took reverting to the football pads and helmets on a basketball court to find their inner strength then consider this gimmick a success.
So far in the post-football pad era, this squad is 1-0 and still driving toward its ultimate goal of a national title.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.