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Providence faces tough matchup

Friars will meet streaking Pacific

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If there is any carryover from the end of the regular season, 21st-ranked Providence doesn't compare well with tonight's opponent.

The Friars (20-8) enter the postseason on a three-game losing streak after being in good position to win their first Big East regular-season title. Providence lost home games to Pittsburgh and Boston College before dropping its first-round game in the conference tournament to Villanova.

The Friars, seeded fifth, play Pacific, which has won 15 straight games, the second-longest streak in the nation.

"We got to the NCAA Tournament, not because we lost three games in two weeks, but because of our entire schedule," said coach Tim Welsh, who leads Providence to its first NCAA appearance since 1991. "We did a lot of unbelievable things this year. We tied the school record for league wins, we had the highest ranking for a Providence team (12th) in over 25 years, and now, as the No. 5 seed, we have the highest seeding for a Providence team ever."

Forward Ryan Gomes doesn't know anything about Pacific, but felt his team needs to be ready.

"You can't disrespect anyone in this tournament," he said. "They're here for a reason. They won 24 games."

The Providence-Pacific winner could find itself playing Kansas, which opens against Illinois-Chicago.

Kansas has a new coach in Bill Self, who came to Kansas in April, after Roy Williams -- who led Kansas to its second straight Final Four last season and a spot in the national title game -- returned to his native North Carolina after 15 seasons in Lawrence.

This marks Self's sixth straight tournament appearance, having made it with Tulsa in 1999-00 and Illinois in 2001-03. The Illini and Jayhawks met twice in the regional semifinals, with Illinois winning, 80-64, in 2001 and Kansas winning, 73-69, a year later.

Now he'll try to get the Jayhawks to a third straight Final Four with a team that is different from last year's, which lost, 81-78, in the championship game.

That team was led by two NBA lottery picks, guard Kirk Hinrich and forward Nick Collison.

This year's starting lineup includes three juniors -- guards Aaron Miles and Keith Langford and forward Wayne Simien, who all started the 2003 title game -- with freshmen David Padgett and J.R. Giddens.

Kansas's streak of 52 home wins against unranked opponents was broken by Richmond in January, and the Jayhawks had three road losses of 15 points or more in Big 12 play. But they won six of their last eight and then got a boost from the NCAA's "pod" system, which aims to keep higher-seeded teams close to home for early round games. Kemper Arena, the site of the first two rounds, is only 40 miles from the Jayhawks' campus -- and it's the site of a wonderful memory for Kansas fans, who remember the team's win over Oklahoma here in 1988 for the Jayhawks' last national title.

Earlier in the week, though, Self played down the importance of playing so close to home.

"I really don't feel like playing in Kansas City guarantees us anything," he said. "I hope it's worth a couple points. We are approaching it as if we were playing in Buffalo, Seattle, or any other site."

At any of those sites, though, several thousand Kansas fans likely wouldn't have shown up to cheer the Jayhawks' practice session -- especially the slam-dunk exhibition late in the session.

They even cheered Self when -- after several misses -- he drained a 3-pointer earlier in the practice.

Oklahoma State, the second seed in the East Rutherford Regional, also is playing close to home in a venue that's familiar to coach Eddie Sutton, if not to many of his players.

The Big 12 Conference, and before that the Big Eight, held its tournament in Kemper Arena for 27 years before moving to Dallas for a two-year stint in 2003.

"My concern wasn't the team playing here," said Sutton, whose Cowboys (27-3) play Eastern Washington (17-12) today. "My concern was with our fans being able to travel. If you look at where we've been for the last 10 years, everything has been east of the Mississippi River."

The winner of the Oklahoma State-Eastern Washington game will play either South Carolina (23-10) or Memphis (21-7) Sunday.

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