KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The novelty and nostalgia part of North Carolina coach Roy Williams facing his former school, Kansas, has long since worn off.
It really means nothing to the players who will square off Sunday at 4:15 p.m. in the third round of the NCAA tourney.
What does matter is simply what’s at stake — a trip to the Sweet 16.
“There’s going to be a lot of hype with Roy (Williams) coming back,” Kansas center Jeff Withey said, “but I didn’t play for him. None of us played for him. We really don’t know him.”
Added North Carolina forward Desmond Hubert, “It’s just another game to us. It’s win or go home. It’s North Carolina versus whomever.”
Even the coaches involved seem a bit weary Saturday of the dreaded Roy-comes-back angle.
“You know, I don’t think it does any good for our players to try to get pumped up to face Roy,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They’re better off getting up for the North Carolina players.
“The other thing is, it has been 10 years. That’s a long time. I could go back to Champaign (Ill.) (where Self once coached) and I don’t think anyone would notice if I hung out there for a month. Now, I realize it’s a little different situation for Roy. But like I said, it has been 10 years for him. And we’ve already faced him a couple of times.
“I think the storyline isn’t what it once was.”
Williams seemed to agree on Saturday.
“I’ll always be a Kansas fan,” Williams said. “It was a special place for me. I’ve told this story a hundred times but I was in the airport once and a Kansas fan came up to me and said, ‘Nice to see you but I’m a Kansas fan.’ I said, ‘So am I.’ Well, he was silent. He went to his gate, then came back to my gate and said my comment really surprised him.
“But I said it shouldn’t have. When I was here, I was a Kansas fan first and a North Carolina fan second. Now, I’m a North Carolina fan first and Kansas fan second.
“But come (Sunday), none of that matters. It’s up to the players.”
Granted, there is some significance to the most recent Roy-faces-Kansas storyline: To the North Carolina players, such as James Michael McAdoo, the remnants of Kansas’ 80-67 NCAA tournament win last season are simply reminders of what the Tar Heels must do this time around to pull off the upset over the Jayhawks.
“These are different teams, different players,” McAdoo said. “But we remember the game. We were close. It was a hard-fought game.”
And the Tar Heels were right there, trailing just 68-67 with 3 minutes, 58 seconds left. Then the Jayhawks clamped down and squeezed hard on the Tar Heel offense.
North Carolina didn’t score again.
“They’re good again defensively this year,” North Carolina swingman P.J. Hairston said. “That’s what they do. We know they lead the nation in defensive field-goal percentage.”
And that, of course, is a trademark of a Self-coached team. In last year’s meeting, the Tar Heels were just two of 17 from three-point range.
“We had some open looks,” Hairston said. “They just didn’t go in.”
This year’s matchup promises to be more of the same type of grinding defense from the Jayhawks, who rely heavily on Withey’s ability to protect the rim, and on defensive specialists Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson to pressure the wing.
“That’s what makes them so tough,” Williams said. “They’ve got Jeff down low, and then they’ve still got length on the wing to make it difficult.”
Williams, who has always been a fan of post men, instead shifted this year to a four-guard starting five in an attempt to get his five best players on the floor and to stretch defenses.
“But that doesn’t mean we won’t attack inside,” Williams said. “I’ve always said the best way to attack a shot blocker such as Jeff is to go right between the eyes.
“Now, having said that, you have to pick your spots. If we get a second-chance rebound by a 6-foot-3 guard and he tries to go up against Jeff, well, at the next horn, we’ll have another 6-foot-3 guard in the game to replace him.”
North Carolina players believe the style of KU this season will be slightly different.
“They’re still a great team,” Hairston said. “But they’re different. I think they try to play a sagging defense and don’t let you get inside.”
That could help free up Williams’ smaller lineup to score from the perimeter.
“It’s a little similar, in terms of personnel, to Iowa State,” Self said. “So I guess that could be a benefit. But they don’t run the same plays as Iowa State.
“And no one has a four like Hairston who can do all the things he can do. Some fours can stretch it, but he can really stretch it. I mean way out there. So that will be a challenge.”
What won’t be challenging is trying to put the Roy-returns storyline to rest — even for Roy.
“Look, it’s a special place,” Williams said. “Basketball out here is very important. The people have been really nice to me since I’ve been back. There have been people driving by while we’ve been walking out on the streets and everyone has yelled some really nice things.
“There’s been one person who yelled something not so nice but that’s all part of it. But it’s not been a distraction at all, coming back. Time heals all wounds. People move on.”