Vahe Gregorian

NCAA Tournament could feature Kansas-North Carolina matchup at Sprint Center

Bill Self reacts to the Jayhawks’ No. 4 seed in NCAA Tournament

Kansas coach Bill Self reacts on March 17, 2019 to the Jayhawks' No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament and the possibility of playing in Kansas City.
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Kansas coach Bill Self reacts on March 17, 2019 to the Jayhawks' No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament and the possibility of playing in Kansas City.

With North Carolina perched as the No. 1 seed, Kentucky No. 2 and Kansas No. 4 in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional bracket, Sprint Center on March 29 has the potential to host a blue-blood Sweet 16 like few others before.

For starters, that would bring together the three programs with the most major-college basketball wins: Kentucky has 2,292 victories, Kansas 2,273 and UNC 2,259.

Among them, they boast 52 Final Four appearances (North Carolina with 20, Kentucky 17 and Kansas 15) and 17 NCAA titles (Kentucky with eight, North Carolina six and KU three).

Add in the possibility of No. 6 seed Iowa State returning to Kansas City after its fans swarmed the city and all but seized the building during its run to the Big 12 Tournament championship last week.

And it all has the makings of a fairly ideal scenario for the region … even if K-State fans certainly wish the Wildcats could be in on the deal instead of being cast out as a No. 4 seed in the South Regional.

Such a convergence of history and geographic happenstance, of course, depends first on the bracket playing to seed for UNC, UK and KU, which if it wins the tournament opener against Northeastern on Thursday in Salt Lake City will take on the winner of the matchup between fifth-seeded Auburn and 12th-seeded New Mexico State.

Should it go to form, that would mean the Jayhawks taking on the Tar Heels and coach Roy Williams — and all the drama that would revolve around the ever-emotional former KU coach returning to the area with what will be a legitimate gripe about the setup.

As much as you might want to believe this is about the selection committee concocting a matchup, something just went awry for it to put UNC as a No. 1 seed in a position to be playing on what essentially could be a home-court advantage for KU.

Of course, that would guarantee nothing for Kansas, which just lost the Big 12 championship game on that very floor and fell here to Oregon in the 2017 Elite Eight.

But while other fans will have something to say about who would fill up Sprint (expect Kentucky and Iowa State loyalists to be particularly imaginative and passionate if they’re in the mix), it’s a regrettable glitch in the NCAA seeding procedure — albeit one favorable to KU — that makes this a possibility.

North Carolina only provided selected statements from Williams on Sunday night that didn’t address the matter, and maybe he won’t touch it yet with the Tar Heels needing to win twice before that could happen.

And who’s to say that Kansas even will make it here?

But it’s a bad look by the NCAA. And if it leads to a date with Kansas, no doubt it will consume Williams given an ongoing fascination with KU that you can bet will mean hearing him talk about patting the tombstone at James Naismith’s grave and getting chills coaching at Allen Fieldhouse and the meaning of Dean Smith to both programs and the passion of Kansas fans.

Somehow, he will still seem conflicted.

Never mind that Williams now has been back at UNC longer than he was at KU (1988-2003). The attachment to Kansas, and certainly the need to overwhelmingly express it, will remain forever.

So much so that he is never going to schedule KU, and he didn’t much like playing KU here in a NCAA second-round game in 2013 as a No. 8 seed against the top-seeded Jayhawks.

With that 70-58 defeat, Williams fell to 0-3 against KU in postseason play, including the 84-66 wipeout in the 2008 national semifinal and an 80-67 loss in a 2012 regional final.

After the 2013 loss, Williams was asked whether losing to Kansas was more painful than other defeats.

“No, it is not any more painful. We lost to another basketball team,” he said. “The fact that I coached there for 15 years is extremely important to me, but it doesn’t add anything today.”

You can bet it did, though. And this time would loom even larger with the seeding tables turned and Williams’ top-seeded team expected to beat the No. 4 seed.

There’s a long way to go before any of that, of course. But even if it’s a bad deal for North Carolina and Williams, for whom few will feel sorry, it sure would be great for Kansas City and Sprint Center if it plays out that way.

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