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Schenscher's impact grows with each game

SAN ANTONIO -- The first time Georgia Tech strength coach Scott McDonald put Luke Schenscher on a bench press, the 7-foot-1, 205-pound center barely fit. Not to mention he had no idea what to do.

But McDonald didn't care. He turned up the Metallica, slipped on a pair of light plates, explained the proper lifting technique and watched. What he realized was that the Australian native barely had the upper body strength of a high school basketball player.

A women's high school basketball player.

"He could barely max 95 pounds," McDonald said. "That was it."

So McDonald put Schenscher on a weight program. On protein shakes. Schenscher's teammates would stuff food in his mouth every chance they got, four, five, six times a day. Last summer, McDonald pushed Schenscher five days a week, two times a day, with everything from medicine balls to resistance ropes. He set up summer games with former Tech bruisers like Malcom Mackey to show Schenscher how to be physical.

And it worked. 7-feet-1, 205 pounds has become 7-feet-1, 255 pounds. And three years after stepping foot in a completely foreign country, Schenscher is one game away from helping his team finish its unexpected run to the NCAA championship -- in no small part due to his remarkable turnaround.

He's gone from the ultimate project his redshirt year, to a scrub his freshman year, a running joke his sophomore year and now the man his coach expects to "give trouble" to the most feared post player in all of college basketball Monday night, Emeka Okafor.

"He's finally put it all together and become the player we thought he could be," teammate Anthony McHenry said. "I don't know where we'd be without him."

His story is a wild one. From a small-town Australian kid who grew up on a farm and stacked barrels of hay to facing Yao Ming in an international exhibition and moving some 12,000 miles away from home to play college basketball and attend college in America.

Drexel coaches first discovered Schenscher, but the day after Schenscher's visit, coach Steve Seymour got fired, prompting one of his assistants, John O'Connor, to recommended Schenscher to Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt.

"I flew 22 hours for a day-and-a-half visit and then the day after I get home, the coach gets fired," Schenscher said. "But I guess it's worked out in the long run."

Has it ever. On the Georgia Tech campus, the big man that everyone used to laugh at is now a cult hero. When a few students created yellow, "Luke Schenscher has a Posse" bumper stickers, the idea caught on, was transferred to t-shirts and has since become the hottest article of college clothing since the new Birkenstocks.

Hewitt bought a shirt for each member of his team. And the Georgia Tech has been decked out in the shirts throughout the tournament.

"I tell my teammates it's because I'm so good looking," Schenscher says of his newfound stateside fame. "But it's not hard to see that isn't the case.

"People like something different. I'm from Australia, I'm 7-foot-1, and I've got this red curly hair. I'm just different. And people seem to like that."

It hasn't always been easy. Schenscher grew up on a five-acre farm in tiny Hope Forest, Australia, with sheep and ducks and chickens. When he first moved to Atlanta three years ago, he struggled with being homesick. He was in a foreign country, a 22-hour plane flight from home, his game wasn't developing and then he took a backseat to star freshman Chris Bosh.

"We're a close family so it was tough," he said. "Real tough."

Complicating matters was the 15-hour time difference, not to mention the cost of daily phone calls home to Australia. Take his phone call after Saturday night's Final Four victory over Oklahoma State for example. Schenscher used a calling card to call his mom and dad and everybody else celebrating at his home in Hope Forest, but after talking for a couple minutes, the card ran out.

"Dad had a hoarse voice from yelling so much," Schenscher said. "But it's extra motivation to know they're watching. I always have big games when I know they're watching."

Moving to the U.S. meant cultural adjustments for him as well as everyone else. There's the accent his teammates try, but fail, to mimic. Or the fact that many Americans base their understanding of Australia on Crocodile Dundee.

"I would have people ask me, 'Did you learn to speak English over there or after you came here,' " he said. "I'm not kidding. Or they'd ask, 'Ever been for a ride in a kangaroo pouch?' "

His big basketball opportunity came last spring, when Bosh, the 2003 ACC Rookie of the Year, left Georgia Tech for the NBA. Most figured it was a decision that would bury the Yellow Jackets. Schenscher saw it as a challenge to deliver a game that would match his size.

"I remember telling my girlfriend, 'I want to look back on this season with no regrets,' " Schenscher said. "So she constantly reminds me, everyday, 'no regrets, no regrets.' "

He worked tirelessly with McDonald, gained the trust of his teammates in off-season games and once practice started, impressed his coaches. He started the season-opener at center and never looked back. Only there was one problem -- while his coaches and teammates respected him, officials didn't.

In Georgia Tech's victory over UConn in the Preseason NIT semifinals on Nov. 26, Schenscher, guarding Emeka Okafor, fouled out in 21 minutes, scoring just two points. Hewitt went on a rampage.

"I didn't care who I talked to, who I said it to, I told everybody I could that he's a good basketball player," Hewitt said. "Anybody can be knocked off balance with a cross-body block, but then if he touches somebody on the wrist, the whistle would blow. It wasn't fair to him.

"Now, all of the sudden people are thinking there's been this miraculous metamorphosis. I just think people are more objective in calling the games against him."

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun isn't so sure. He knows Schenscher's ability to stay out of foul trouble and slow down Okafor will be critical to Georgia Tech's success on Monday night. He's seen the tape of Schenscher clamping down on the best big men out there, from North Carolina's Sean May to Kansas' Wayne Simien, and he has his own theories about Schenscher's improvement since the last time these two teams met.

"He's a different player," Calhoun said. "And he's also grown seven inches, too. He's got to be 8-3. He dwarfs everybody out there."

Not to mention, there's some strength to go with it.

"We've still got some work to do," McDonald said. "I'd like him to be a little bit stronger. But it's remarkable that he's come this far. From where he was to where he is is a testament to how bad he wanted it."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.