An unwelcome foe
UNC’s Williams takes on Kansas
ST. LOUIS - It’s been nine years since Roy Williams left Kansas, and he knows the Jayhawks and their fans have gotten over him.
No matter how much time passes, he’ll never be able to say the same.
Williams would rather top-seeded North Carolina (32-5) face almost anyone but his “second-favorite’’ team Sunday, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. None of the players who played for him are still at Kansas, no one on the Jayhawks staff has ties to Williams, and coach Bill Self is building his own legacy in Lawrence.
For Williams, however, Kansas (31-6) will always be personal. Williams says he tried to “give everything’’ to Kansas for 15 years, and will always have fond memories of his time with the Jayhawks.
“That was 15 years of my life that I tried to give everything,’’ he said. “I don’t think it’ll ever feel good for me, regardless of the outcome. I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable with it.’’
Adding to that discomfort is that North Carolina (32-5) might be without dazzling point guard Kendall Marshall for the second straight game. Marshall, who Williams called “our engine, our driver, the head of the thing,’’ has a broken bone in his right wrist, and resumed basketball activity Saturday for the first time since being injured last Sunday.
“The range of motion is getting gradually better every day, and that’s a positive sign,’’ Marshall said. “There’s been tremendous improvement every 24 hours.’’
Williams compiled a 418-101 record in 15 years at Kansas, the second-best winning percentage behind Self, the man who replaced him. Williams took the Jayhawks to the NCAA Tournament 14 times and reached the Final Four four times. Kansas played for the title twice under Williams, falling to Duke in 1991 and Syracuse in 2003.
Considered one of the hottest coaching prospects around, he seemed content to stay at Kansas, even turning down North Carolina, his alma mater and the place where he’d spent 10 years as Dean Smith’s assistant, in 2000.
When North Carolina asked again three years later, however, Williams couldn’t say no. The proud program was in disarray, just one year removed from its first losing record in 40 years.
Though Williams was going back home, to the only other program he loved, Kansas fans were bitter at what they saw as rejection.
“It was a backhanded compliment,’’ Self said. “If they didn’t care for him so much, why would they care if he left?’’
When Kansas and North Carolina met in the Final Four in 2008, fans showed up in “Benedict Williams’’ T-shirts.
“We didn’t really feel too harsh feelings toward him because we had nothing to do with it. It was a personal decision he had to make,’’ said Conner Teahan, the only Kansas player left from that 2008 team. “But Kansas fans really wanted us to win that game. It was huge for ’em because when he left, they were disappointed.’’
It helps, of course, that both programs have thrived in the last nine years.
In addition to that NCAA title in 2008, Kansas (31-6) has won eight straight Big 12 titles under Self.
North Carolina, meanwhile, won the national title in 2005 and again in 2009, and is in the regional finals for the sixth time under Williams. The Tar Heels are a No. 1 seed for a record 14th time.
“It’s something that you dream about all the time, getting yourself in this position,’’ Williams said.
If only he didn’t have to play Kansas.