The matchup basketball fans hope for: KU vs. UNC
The opening games of the NCAA Midwest Regional Basketball Tournament tip off Friday night at the Edward Jones Dome. The University of North Carolina plays Ohio University in the opening game; followed by the University of Kansas against North Carolina State University.
In an NCAA Tourney that has broken more prediction brackets this year than any in recent memory (thanks Mizzou, for blowing my bracket out of the water!), it’s dangerous to look past any game to future matchups.
That’s especially true for UNC, which likely will be playing Friday without point guard Kendall Marshall, who suffered a fractured wrist courtesy of a hard foul in the Creighton game. The left-handed Marshall creates plenty of assists for teammates with his amazing passing, but surgery Monday to insert a screw in the schapoid bone in his right wrist makes his presence Friday for Carolina iffy, to say the least.
But it’s inevitable that basketball fans are anticipating a Midwest regional final at the Dome featuring UNC and KU – two of college basketball’s most storied programs. Since the NCAA Tournament began in 1939, the Tarheels and Jayhawks have collectively made a total of 85 appearances (43 by UNC, 42 by KU), made it to the Final Four 31 times (18 UNC, 13 KU) and won the National Championship 8 times (5 UNC, 3 KU).
The long-term, dominant success of these two programs is underscored by one more telling stat. Since its inaugural season in 1898, KU has won 2,067 games. And since its first season in 1910, UNC has won 2,064 times. The only team to win more games is the University of Kentucky, this year’s tourney favorite, with 2,086 wins.
But stats only outline the story.
Over the past decade, the emotional intensity of the UNC-KU rivalry has been dialed up the max.
The reason? Roy Williams
Current Carolina coach Williams, who coached at KU for 15 years beginning in 1988, left the Jayhawks to return to his alma mater and coach the Tarheels in 2003.
My KU fan friends have never forgiven Williams for leaving Lawrence. And when they mention his name at all, it’s with an obvious distain once reserved for anyone associated with Mizzou basketball or Quantrill’s infamous raid on Lawrence in 1863.
These friends reveled in the Jayhawks’s 84-66 demolishing of UNC - and Williams - in the championship semifinals in 2008, when Kansas won the NCAA championship over Memphis.
But the connections between KU and UNC go much deeper than the rejection that Jayhawks fans felt when Williams departed for Chapel Hill. The legendary Dean Smith, who coached at Carolina from 1961 through 1997, was born in Emporia, Kans., played basketball at KU under the great “Phog” Allen; who in turn, learned the game from James Naismith, who invented the game and was the first coach of the Jayhawks.
Smith, who played on the KU team that won the national championship in 1952, was an assistant under Allen for a year after he graduated. And in a 1997 Sports Illustrated article, Smith said, “Everything I ever learned about basketball, I learned at the University of Kansas.”
It was Smith who hired Roy Williams as an assistant coach at UNC in 1978, and Smith was thrilled when KU hired Williams as its head coach in 1988.
Williams very likely would still be coaching at Kansas if not for Smith’s personal appeal to him to come back to UNC and take the coaching job in 2003 – after Williams turned down an offer to coach the Tarheels in 2000, deciding to stay at Kansas.
As a UNC alum, I certainly haven’t felt disdain for Kansas. For myself and the vast majority of Carolina fans, it’s all about beating Duke – and always will be. But the possibility of a game against KU to determine which team will go to the Final Four is enough to make any college b-ball junkie hyped.
Over the history of the NCAA Tournament, UNC and KU have played only three times other than in 2008. Carolina won its first NCAA championship in 1957 when they defeated a KU team that featured basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain in a thrilling three-overtime contest. Kansas – led by Williams - beat UNC in the 1991 national semifinals before losing to Duke. And Carolina – under Smith – beat KU and Williams in 1993 before defeating Michigan to win the title.
Assuming both UNC and KU win Friday, Sunday at the Dome has the potential to be the most eagerly anticipated NCAA Tournament game in years.
I understand tickets are still available … And Go Heels!
Editor's note: An alert KU fan pointed out that in the original story, the championship win of Memphis was set in 2009. KU won that championship in 2008, and the article has been corrected.