It was a classic NCAA Tournament matchup: Kansas vs. North Carolina, two of the three winningest programs in college basketball history; Bill Self, the current Jayhawk head coach against former Kansas coach Roy Williams, now sporting Carolina blue.
Sunday's Midwest Regional championship game between the two schools, a battle for the final spot in this year's NCAA Basketball Men's Final Four, was more than worthy of the stellar historical reputations on the hardwood of these two outstanding college programs. The game was a tight, back-and-forth affair that went right down to the wire, despite the 13-point margin, in favor of Kansas, indicated by the final score.
With the Jayhawks holding a precarious one-point lead, at 68-67, with just under four minutes to play, junior guard Elijah Johnson buried a three-point shot, sparking what turned out to be a deciding 12-0 run to close out the game.
"It was a game of runs," Williams said, "and we didn't answer the last one."
If you are a Kansas fan, the first half of Sunday's game with North Carolina was highly reminiscent of the 1988 National Championship game against then-Big Eight rival Oklahoma. In the '88 game, the Jayhawks and heavily favored Sooners put on a first-half shooting display that ended in a 50-50 deadlocked score after the first 20 minutes.
On Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Williams' Tar Heels were on fire in the first half, blistering the nets at an unbelievable 64 percent scoring clip. Kansas was only a fraction worse, with a 56 percent shooting percentage. Like in their Final Four championship season in 1988, the Jayhawks went to the locker room at halftime with a tie score (47-47). At one five-minute stretch in the opening half, the two teams combined for 15 consecutive baskets.
In the second half, the Jayhawks switched strengths from offense to defense, which has been the key to a number of their 33 wins in this improbable season. Kansas turned up the defensive screws in the second half, and it definitely affected the Tar Heels ability to get the ball inside and find ways to score. In the second half, North Carolina's shooting percentage went from boiling hot to ice cold as the Jayhawks held the Heels to a putrid 23 percent of its field goal attempts.
In addition to playing outstanding defense when it mattered the most, Kansas also won the battle of the boards, coming away with six more rebounds than their opponent from North Carolina, one of the best rebounding teams in the country coming into the game.
This was only the second time Self has coached Kansas against its former coach of 15 years. Kansas has won both times. The Jayhawks stunned the Tar Heels, jumping out to a 24-point advantage in the opening half in the national semifinals in 2008, on the way to their third national championship. Shortly after leaving Kansas in 2003 to take the head job at his alma mater, Williams declared that he would never schedule a regular-season game with his "second favorite team." Given that he has yet to beat the Jayhawks, you can appreciate why he feels that way.
The all-time series between these two legendary basketball programs dates back to the 1957 National Championship, a game won by North Carolina in three overtimes over a Kansas team that featured Wilt Chamberlain. Since that time, the Jayhawks and Tar Heels have met nine more times on the hardwood, with North Carolina owning a 6-4 advantage.
So now it's on to the Big Easy and the Mercedes Superdome to face Ohio State, one of only two No. 1 seeds to make it all the way through to this year's Final Four. The Jayhawks already own a victory over the Buckeyes this season, a 78-67 victory at Allen Fieldhouse in December. Although that win may be a bit misleading because it was over a Buckeye team that did not have its All-American forward, Jared Sullinger, in the lineup. Sullinger sat out the Kansas game with an injury, but he will be on the floor and a definite force for the Kansas defense to contend with when these two teams tangle for a second time this season on Saturday in one of the two national semifinals.
The Jayhawks, who are playing in their 23rd consecutive NCAA Tournament, are making their 14th appearance in the Final Four, the fifth most of any team in college basketball. It will be the second trip to the Final Four for a Bill Self-coached Kansas team. The last time, of course, was in 2008, when the Jayhawks won it all, defeating Memphis in overtime in the championship final.
Kansas has had better teams with greater individual talent that didn't make it even this far, but few of those teams worked as hard and had the will and team chemistry that this Jayhawk squad has shown. With no starters from last year's Elite Eight team returning in 2011-12 and three highly touted freshmen recruits being declared ineligible for the season, there were many, including some of the Jayhawk faithful, who felt Kansas would be fortunate to defend its conference championship for an eighth consecutive season.
"I think this would have been a year that if we got to the second weekend, most Kansas faithful would have been happy," Self said in his post-game comments. Like they have all season, this year's Kansas team, led by consensus AP First-Team All-American Thomas Robinson and senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, exceeded expectations, winning 30 or more games for a third consecutive season and for the fifth time in the last six years.
Kansas seemingly took a back seat to the Missouri Tigers throughout much of the current season. The Tigers won the Big 12 Tournament championship, had a higher national ranking and sported a better overall record than their rivals from the Sunflower State. But in the NCAA Tournament, which represents the pinnacle of the season for most Division I teams, Missouri fell victim to Norfolk State in their opening tournament game in one of the biggest upsets in this year's tournament, and the Jayhawks are still playing as one of the final four teams left standing out of the starting field of 68.
Heading into the final weekend of the 2011-12 college basketball season, three words quickly come to mind to describe the hoops season enjoyed by this group of Jayhawks: Resilient...Fearless...Defense. Kansas will need all three attributes, and a game like they had against North Carolina on offense, if they want to keep their season alive past Saturday and play for the school's fourth national championship and second in the Bill Self era.
As a dubious point of reference, KU is 1-1 against this year's Final Four teams. The Jayhawks defeated Ohio State but lost to No. 1 overall tournament seed Kentucky, 75-65, very early in the season in the Champions Classic Tournament in New York City.
This may be Self's least-talented and least impressive team on paper, but he will tell you he has never enjoyed coaching a team more than this one. "This team has played as close to its ceiling as it possibly could," he said.
The last Kansas team like this one took home the national championship trophy. Who's to say it can't happen a second time.
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