GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Understandably a lot of people think that the college basketball universe centers in Chapel Hill, given North Carolina’s history of excellence and rousing run to tonight’s NCAA Championship Game.
But the truth is that modern college basketball was born at the University of Kansas and polished to a shine at Kentucky before the Tar Heels found their way to the head of the class, where they have remained, arguably, for the past 65 years or so.
Like or hate Kansas – and if you wear the lighter shade of blue today that feeling is discernible and quantifiable – you should know that in the 1920s basketball became what it is on the campus in Lawrence, Kansas, which was more a separate town than the suburb of Kansas City it is today.
The athletic director at KU in those days was James Naismith. You may know the name. Before he moved west, he worked at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, where one winter, to bridge the gap between football and baseball, he contrived this little indoor game that involved nailing peach baskets to the balcony and shooting soccer balls into them.
Naismith served at KU from 1919 to 1937, and he hired a basketball coach named Forrest Allen, whom they called “Phog,” the legend goes, because he had a “foghorn voice.” You may also know that Allen coached at KU from 1919 to 1956 and retired with 590 victories, among the most at the time. They put his name on the fieldhouse at Kansas.
One of his players in the 1920s was a farm boy from Halstead, Kansas, named Adolph Rupp. Maybe you’ve heard of him, too. He coached for 41 seasons at Kentucky and won 771 games between 1930 and 1972. When he retired in 1972, that was the most by anyone. He also won four NCAA titles. The arena in Lexington, Kentucky, is named for Rupp.
And that brings us full circle back to North Carolina and the night of March 23, 1957, when UNC stepped into the circle of college powerhouses by winning its first NCAA title, 54-53, over – you guessed it – Kansas.
The very next season, UNC needed a new assistant coach – teams basically had only one in those days – and Tar Heels Coach Frank McGuire hired a young man named Dean Smith, who was then an assistant coach at Air Force. Smith had played his college basketball at – are you with us? – Kansas, where he was a reserve on Phog Allen’s 1952 team that won the Jayhawks’ first NCAA title.
When McGuire got into some recruiting trouble and was forced to resign at UNC, Smith was tapped for the job. He stayed 37 seasons and won 879 games, breaking the record of … yes, Adolph Rupp. Oh, and they named the campus arena and affectionately call it the “Dean Dome.”
So tonight in New Orleans the legacies of Naismith, Allen and Smith will be a rich roue in the Superdome, where UNC and KU will do the same thing in the same building they did in 1993, when the Tar Heels beat the Jayhawks in the semifinals en route to winning their third championship (and Smith’s final one) against Michigan.
The schools have played six times in the NCAA since that first title game in 1957, and KU has won four of those. Three times it was in the national semifinals: 1991 (KU, 79-73), 1993 (UNC, 78-68) and 2008 (KU, 84-66).
That year Kansas went on to win the title for the first time since its “Danny (Manning) and The Miracles” team won in a 1988, coached by Larry Brown, a UNC alumnus. That was KU’s first title since 1952. That 2008 title was its last.
For the record, the two schools have played for the championship a combined 22 times (UNC 12, KU 10) and won nine titles. Most recently KU lost in the final to Kentucky in 2012, and UNC won in 2017.
Now they are back, so we offer Five Fun Facts about games between UNC and Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
1. A classic final
North Carolina’s first NCAA title was an instant classic. The game took three overtimes, and regulation time included an altercation that required the police to be called. The Associated Press reported that no punches were thrown. But when play resumed, the defense was intense. The teams scored two points each in the first overtime, and neither scored in the second. All the points in the third overtime came on free throws, with UNC’s Joe Quigg hitting a decisive pair with 6 seconds left. KU missed its shot at the buzzer.
2. The star of that show
Many would suggest that Quigg was the star of that game. He had 10 points and nine rebounds. Or maybe his teammate, All-American forward Lennie Rosenbluth, who scored 20.
But probably the truest star in the game was Kansas’s gangly center, a future powerhouse named Wilt Chamberlain, who went on as a professional to score 100 points by himself for the Philadelphia Warriors in game in 1962. Against the Tar Heels, Chamberlain scored 23 but incredibly took only 13 shots from the field. He made 11 of 16 from the free-throw line. He also had 14 rebounds, but UNC outrebounded the taller Jayhawks in the game (36-25).
3. A family tradition
When Kansas beat UNC in 1991, the game took on a transitional feeling. The Jayhawks were coached by former UNC player and assistant coach Roy Williams. In 2003 when UNC was looking to replace former player Matt Doherty as its coach, Williams (who had won more than 400 games at Kansas) was the choice.
Williams had been a high school star from Asheville who played only his freshman year at UNC and then had become a practice aide for Dean Smith, who helped launch his coaching career. Williams did OK at Chapel Hill, winning three national titles (2005, 2009 and 2017). He also surpassed Smith’s record and retired in 2021 with 903 victories. The Tar Heels’ current coach is Hubert Davis, in his first year after succeeding his former coach and boss, for whom he had spent nine seasons as an assistant.
4. A little more offense
When UNC and KU played in New Orleans in 1993, the Tar Heels controlled the game, building on a 4-point halftime to win, 78-68. The 3-point basket had become fixture of the game by then, but it hardly was the offensive focal point that it is in the modern game.
The Tar Heels shot 26 3s in beating Duke on Saturday, but nearly 30 years ago they tried only seven in beating KU, all by star guard Donald Williams, who made five. Kansas on the other hand was aggressive from long range, launching 20 and making a laudable 11. Sort of like 1957, UNC won the game by making 10 more free throws – KU only shot seven and made them all – and dominating on rebounds (32-22).
5. It hasn’t been close recently
The first three times Williams coached the Tar Heels against his former team, Kansas won, and the last couple weren’t close. On their way to beating Memphis (and current Kentucky Coach John Calipari) in the final in 2008, the Jayhawks pounded Williams and UNC, 84-66. In 2012, when the Jayhawks lost in the final to Kentucky in New Orleans, they routed North Carolina, 80-67, in the Midwest Regional final in St. Louis. The teams played again in 2013, in a regional semifinal, and KU pulled away with a 49-28 second half to win, 70-58.