KANSAS CITY, Mo.— North Carolina coach Roy Williams has plenty of stories about his days at Kansas, and he pulled out one of the more poignant ones Saturday afternoon, as the two historic programs were preparing to meet in the third round of NCAA Tournament.
It had to do with James Naismith and Phog Allen – the founder of the game and one of its greatest coaches – and it went something like this:
“Every game day at Kansas,” Williams said, “I went up to the graves in the cemetery, and patted the tombstones of Dr. Naismith and Dr. Allen. I would always ask them for intervention. Now, I don’t know if they gave me any, but it always made me feel better.”
It’s been nine years since Williams came down from the leafy Kansas campus on Mount Oread and settled in idyllic Chapel Hill – nearly a full decade since he left Kansas for North Carolina.
The Tar Heels have won a national title. So have the Jayhawks.
Yet to this day, the silver-haired coach can’t help but wax poetic about his days in Lawrence – the iconic figures, his own former players, the aura of Allen Fieldhouse and the school that fashions itself as the cradle of hoops.
“I love the passion of the Kansas fans. It’s just off the charts,” he said. “People would see you and say, ‘Coach, I’ve got a 700-mile drive back to Dodge City, but what a great game.’ It was something that they really took a great deal of pride in.”
Top-seeded Kansas won its 2,100th game by beating Western Kentucky on Friday night, while the eighth-seeded Tar Heels remained 10 games back after their win over Villanova. Of their 11 meetings all-time, seven of them will have come in the NCAA Tournament.
There was the 54-53 triple-overtime victory by the Tar Heels in the 1957 national title game, played a few blocks from the Sprint Center at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, and two semifinal matchups in the early ‘90s, when Williams was still sporting a Jayhawk on his mock turtleneck.
More recently, Kansas beat the Tar Heels in the 2008 semifinals, when it captured its fifth national championship, and again last season, when it beat North Carolina to reach the Final Four.
“It’s the kind of game you always dream about as a kid to play in,” the Tar Heels’ Jackson Simmons said. “It’s Kansas. It’s North Carolina. It’s two great programs that have won national championships. It’s going to be a lot of fun to play in Kansas City on Sunday.”
The Jayhawks will be playing about 40 miles from campus.
“We’ve played in some hostile environments this year,” North Carolina guard Marcus Paige said. “It hopefully won’t have much effect. We just have to worry about what’s happening on the court.”
What’s happening on the court should provide plenty of intrigue in its own right.
The Jayhawks (30-5) start four seniors, three of them fifth-years, and one of the nation’s most talented freshmen in swingman Ben McLemore. They play coach Bill Self’s trademark suffocating defense, and relied on all that experience to win their ninth straight Big 12 title this year.
Jeff Withey in particular should pose a matchup problem for the Tar Heels, who changed up their starting five in February, moving away from a post-oriented lineup that Williams has favored for decades toward a four-guard lineup that has provided a more consistent scoring punch.
The 7-foot Withey was the biggest reason Kansas managed to put away scrappy Western Kentucky, and has proven to be one of the nation’s game changers with his ability to patrol the paint.
“They do have a smaller lineup and will be going faster,” Withey said, “but we can ugly up the game by making them play bigger. They love to spread the floor and shoot a lot of 3s.”
Williams admits there was some trepidation when he made such a wholesale change to his long-entrenched philosophy, but the results speak for themselves: nine wins in their last 11 games, a spirited run to the ACC tournament title game and a win over Villanova on Friday night.
“As a basketball coach, you need to try to get your five best players on the floor if you’re not successful, and we weren’t being as successful as we wanted to be,” Williams said. “But the players had to buy in. They’re the ones that should get the credit.”
Those around the North Carolina understand that Williams will always have a connection with Kansas, even players who scarcely remember him on a different sideline. He took the Jayhawks to four Final Fours and a pair of national title games during 15 seasons at Kansas.
But enough time has passed, Self said, that the focus Sunday afternoon should be on two teams trying to make their own history in March, rather than a coach who already has plenty of it.
‘’Nobody can ever take away that he did a fabulous job,” Self said. “On the flip side, I don’t really see after 10 years it’s near as big a deal as maybe the story line would be.”