That North Carolina should meet Kansas in the Final Four on Saturday is a matchup filled with delicious irony. It is more than Dean Smith coaching against his former assistant, Roy Williams. It is more than the two programs running mirror offenses.
Smith has deep-rooted ties to Kansas. He was born in Emporia, (( Kan., 60 years ago. He played under the legendary Phog Allen at the University of Kansas in the early 1950s. He was a member of Kansas' 1952 national championship team.
And when Kansas twice was coach hunting in the last decade, it was Smith's advice the Jayhawks sought. He recommended former Tar Heel Larry Brown in 1984 (Brown not only took the Jayhawks to a national title in '88, but to NCAA probation as well). In 1988, after Brown left for the NBA, Smith recommended Williams, then a 10-year assistant at Carolina.
"I'm so happy for Roy to be there as a coach," Smith said yesterday. "As for playing against your friends, it's different [playing in the Final Four] than in the regular season. You've already had great years. You won't feel very good if you lose, but you'll be happy for the other one."
Williams leaves no doubt that he owes his job to Smith.
"I may not be the brightest guy in the world," he said. "But I know I wouldn't be the coach of Kansas if it weren't for Coach Smith.
"Every bit of basketball success that Roy Williams has is attributed to Dean Smith. [But] if we were playing against each other on the first tee, I'm not going to try to hit the sucker into the woods. I'm a competitor."
Williams also knows firsthand Carolina's senior class of Rick Fox, Pete Chilcutt and King Rice. He helped recruit all three. When the NCAA tournament opened this month, Williams sent each of them a good-luck note.
"I respect Coach Williams 100 percent," Fox said. "He's shown he was paying attention when he was here. Eight or 10 years down the road, when Coach [Smith] retires here, I bet he [Williams] gets the job."
The programs are so similar that Smith recently joked Kansas runs his offense better than the Tar Heels.
"I hope this late in the season both teams would know how to execute," Smith said. "I don't think we'll be getting our simple backdoor layups against one another. I know if somebody gets one, watch the other coach laugh."