In the fall of 2007, I drove the length of the state of Kansas. Kansas is famously actually flatter than a pancake, and the only thing that broke up the monotony of I-70 was the occasional billboard, which invariably informed me I was going to Hell. I was not, in fact, headed to Hell; I was going to Missouri, then Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and finally Maryland, where I live today.
Six months after that trip, the Kansas basketball team made good on its billboards' promises. The Jayhawks and the Tar Heels met in the Final Four and UNC was blown out from the start, falling behind 40-12 and leading Billy Packer to famously declare "This game is over," with seven minutes remaining in the first half.
Of course, it wasn't over. UNC would rally to within five, but never get closer. The final score was 84-66. The win did a lot to put to rest a lot of frustrations Kansas had towards Roy Wiliams' departure five years prior, as Bill Self would bring the championship back to Lawrence that his predecessor never could. And it was somewhat of an open wound for Carolina fans, though one mitigated by the fact that Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington all elected to return to Chapel Hill for another season, and the team would eventually cut down the nets in one of the most dominating tournament runs of the 64-team era.
So I was kind of thrown when the folks at Rock Chalk Talk asked me this:
The Roy Williams Kansas connection is something that is always brought up. I think at this point that hatchet is buried with most reasonable Jayhawk fans, does playing Kansas mean something more to Roy or even the Carolina fanbase still?
It never occurred to me that playing Kansas would hold something special for Carolina fans. For Roy Williams, certainly. He spent years there, and will gladly talk about in great length his love for the school, and how he will never, ever, play in Allen Fieldhouse as the visiting team. But Carolina fans? I've always considered Kansas another storied program, like Kentucky or Indiana, with the added tidbit that Dean Smith was from there. Oh, and Larry Brown coached there for bit. And eventually it was the place where Roy Williams was coaching. There's never been much animosity.
And surprisingly, the 2008 loss didn't really start any. It's not a performance I want to ever see repeated, but honestly, I remember the 2007 loss to Georgetown more. The 2008 game if nothing else had the benefit of Jayhawks fans moving on with their lives. And while Kansas is one of the last teams I wanted to see in Carolina's bracket — I thought them the best two–seed with a legitimate case for a one — there was little thought of avenging that loss.
Now, of course, history has been thrown out the window. UNC fans have focused on nothing but whether Kendall Marshall will play, or how the team will fare without him. The Ohio game made clear what many had suspected; the UNC season we'd been following ended with the Creighton game. This is a new thing, where no one can agree on expectations, and nobody knows what exactly will happen. All eyes are looking internally. The opponent only matters so much as how talented they are and how big of a chance they have of disrupting the strange thing we're calling Carolina's offense now.
Kansas is much better than Ohio. UNC has one of the few defenses that can hold the Jayhawks' offense back. Thomas Robinson is a beast of a player, and one of two people vying for various National Player of the Year honors, but Tyler Zeller and John Henson are incredible defenders, and while foul trouble could tip the balance in either direction, I expect them to battle Robinson to a draw. Tyshawn Taylor is the other big name, a point guard who is almost the antithesis of Kendall Marshall. He's the second–most prolific shooter on the team, and the most turnover–prone starter on the team. He's improved a lot as the season has progressed, and no longer has the eleven–turnover performances he did against Duke. Still, a fast pace and a defender that can push him out his comfort zone could do a lot; it helps that he's been shooting extremely poorly of late.
The rest of the team is significantly subordinate to their two teammates on the offensive end. Elijah Johnson and reserve Conner Teahan are three–point specialists. If you saw Jeff Withey play against State you saw how much of a game-changer he can be on defense (like Henson) but how he's a bit weaker on the boards an offense for a guy his size (unlike Henson). Kansas doesn't go very deep into their bench, playing only eight against the Wolfpack, but expect to see a fair amount of reserve forward Kevin Young, especially if foul trouble becomes an issue.
The big matchup, however, is Harrison Barnes on Travis Releford. Releford has trie to take on the defensive stopper role, but has slipped of late. He's also been in a bit of a scoring slump. Of course, Barnes's defense has also been shaky, and he struggled tremendously without Kendall Marshall on the floor. All week the chorus of commentary insisted he would have to step up big, and he failed to do so Friday night. With both him and Tyshawn Taylor struggling to do what earlier came naturally, whoever breaks out of their slump first may just earn their team a trip to New Orleans.