Tar Heels and Jayhawks enter NCAA title with shared roots

NEW ORLEANS – The history of college basketball can be traced largely from the base of Mount Oread on the Kansas campus, where the game’s inventor was also the school’s first coach, and across the heartland and down Tobacco Road to North Carolina, where so much of its history has been made.

Among those by Dr. James Naismith, who famously tackled those peach baskets at the Springfield YMCA, was an irascible boy named Forrest Allen, who would later go by the nickname simply “Phog.”

Phog Allen later took over the Jayhawks and coached a young man from Southeast Kansas named Dean Smith, who gave him a national championship before beginning his own coaching career.

Smith became a Tar Heels legend during his tenure at Chapel Hill and led North Carolina to two national championships. And one of his students, this Dadgum Roy Williams, not only led the Jayhawks to four Final Fours, but the Tar Heels to three titles of their own.


It goes on and on, the ties binding two of college basketball’s bluebloods create a rich tapestry over time, and another shift will follow Monday night when schools compete for the national championship in the Superdome.

“Both teams are as blue as you can get when talking about Bluebloods,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks are seeking a third national championship. “But playing a Carolina program that’s intertwined with Kansas history, in large part because Coach Smith played in Kansas and won a national championship in 1952, and then he goes on and is considered the best basketball coach ever to have the Sports trained over a longer period of time – I think that’s something special. ”

Self has his own ties to the Tar Heels.

He was just an eager young college student trying to make money as a camp counselor in Kansas in the early 1980s when he caught the attention of the Jayhawks’ coach. It turned out to be Larry Brown, who had played for Smith and the Tar Heels two decades earlier before beginning his own coaching career as an assistant at Chapel Hill.


“So I’m very proud to be part of this game,” said Self.

So did his North Carolina counterpart Hubert Davis, who also played for Smith in the late 1980s and early ’90s. After his own collegiate career and more than a decade in the NBA, Davis returned to North Carolina as Williams’ assistant and was then selected to take over the Tar Heels when the Hall of Fame coach retired last spring .

Davis ruefully recalls playing Williams and the Jayhawks in the 1991 national semifinals, when he ran 9 of 16 and scored 25 points in a loss. Kansas later lost to Duke in the title game.

“Before we won the national championship in 2017, from 1991 to 2017, I watched this game at least once every year. It was the best team I’ve ever played with,” Davis recalled on Sunday. “And we really felt like we had a chance to win the national championship and we didn’t make it. And that was a game where Coach Smith got two technical fouls and got kicked out, and it was an emotional game and an emotional end to a season.”


Davis still regards that 79-73 loss in Indianapolis as “the hardest loss I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.”

“And playing at Carolina was what I always wanted for me, to cut those nets as a player,” he said, “and we were so close and we couldn’t have that experience.”

Davis eventually had that experience as an assistant coach, though never at the Jayhawks’ expense. Kansas has won four of its six encounters in the NCAA tournament, including a second-round matchup in 2013 with Davis in his freshman year on the Tar Heels’ bench.

And then there’s Williams, who retired Friday a year ago after a career in the Hall of Fame. He spent his first 15 seasons in Kansas, along with a very famous “No thanks” when his alma mater first asked him to come home in 2000.

Three years later, Williams failed to disappoint Smith a second time, returning to save a program in turmoil. He spent the next 18 seasons at Chapel Hill, clinching the national titles that eluded him in his outstanding tenure at Lawrence.


“I loved it, loved the people, loved the players, loved Allen Fieldhouse and I wanted them to win every single game,” Williams said. “But (Monday) night is a little bit different.”

He has attended UNC games all season in support of Davis and his former players after “pushing so hard” for Davis to be his replacement. That includes Saturday’s win over Duke here at the Superdome.

“I’ve seen people on Bourbon Street and they’re like, ‘Rock Chalk!’ and I’m going to be like, ‘Go KU’ because that’s my love for this school and that’s never going to change,” Williams said. “But tomorrow night is a different story and it makes me uncomfortable.

“But at the same time, the connections with Coach Smith and me and KU and the relationship we’ve had between these two great basketball programs over the years is very special. And Roy Williams is very flattered to say that I’ve had the opportunity to train at both schools.”


Despite their intertwined history and all the games they’ve played – 6,394, to be precise – Monday night will only be the 12th meeting between them. This will be the sixth postseason meeting to be held in a regional finals or later.

In comparison, the Jayhawks have played Kentucky 34 times.

The first encounter between the Tar Heels and the Jayhawks was a 1957 triple-overtime NCAA title game in which UNC capped an unbeaten season with a 54-53 win over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas. After Davis’ painful defeat in 1991, the Tar Heels won a rematch in the national semifinals en route to Smith’s second championship.

But the Jayhawks have won all of their last three meetings in the tournament, most notably the 2008 Final Four en route to Self’s only national title.

Most of the players who ultimately decide the recent showdown between the historical programs only know the past from stories and memories. Some of them weren’t even born when Williams was coaching in Kansas, let alone when Davis was playing for the Tar Heels, and it was up to their coaches to instill in them the importance of that moment.


Kansas and North Carolina for the national championship.

“I told them this: The best experience I’ve had as a player has been playing in the Final Four, hands down,” Davis said. “I told them, ‘I played 12 years in the NBA and that was my greatest moment as a basketball player, just being in the Final Four.’ I tried to convey to them how special it is to be here. That they can experience it now is great.”


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Dais Johnston

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