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Changes in Coaches Hinder KU and UNC

By Brian Chase

SPORTS EDITOR

There have been a lot of thrilling stories this NCAA Division I Basketball season, the largest ones being the undefeated runs of St. Joseph’s and Stanford (who just lost on the March 6, by the way). But what about the other side of the coin? The disappointments, the letdowns? There were plenty of those, too, especially the horrible play of Missouri’s basketball squad. But there are another two disappointing teams that are actually linked in their disappointment, linked by the biggest coaching change of the last offseason. I refer, of course, to Kansas and North Carolina University.

One of the biggest surprises of last season was that KU basketball coach Roy Williams, coming off a loss in the National Championship game and expecting a stellar recruiting class, left KU to coach at his alma mater, North Carolina, which had been horrible for the last couple years and had recently fired its coach. In his place, KU hired Bill Self, then coach of Illinois, who had a spectacular record in leading the Illini into contention in the Big Ten and was himself a former KU assistant coach. Because Williams is one of the greatest coaches of all time, North Carolina was consistently rated in the top five in preseason polls. Kansas had a stellar freshman class and an impressive young coach, and so it was rated in the top ten.

What has happened since then? Going into both teams’ championship weeks, Kansas is 20-7, ranked 18th in the Coaches’ poll and 21st in the Associated Press poll, with a 12-4 record in Big XII conference play. North Carolina is 18-9, 8-8 within its conference, and ranked 16th by the Coaches and 14th by the AP. Looking at those credentials, some people might be thinking: “Disappointing? Those look like pretty records to me!” And those people might be right. But with two teams expected to be in the top ten all season, a lot of people were let down. It might be worth looking at these two teams, to see where each of them fell short, and how they might end up.

Kansas: It’s never easy for a team to change coaches, especially when the coach coming in plays a tough defense and a half-court offense that the players aren’t used to. But this is exactly what the KU players faced when Bill Self came to town. Self, also, had to adjust his coaching for new players and new pressures. Their expectations were never as high at Illinois as they are at Kansas, and Self admitted the change took some getting used to. These off-court factors are important to consider when looking at Kansas’ record.

As for on-court problems, Kansas has it share as well. The team lacks a true shooter, especially when freshman guard J.R. Giddens struggles. This allows teams to defend down on star forward Wayne Simien. Also, it is very hard for KU to get production from its backup players. It wasn’t until KU went with a slightly sharpened playing roster that it really took off. KU fans, however, can look forward to a class next year that includes three seniors and two much-improved sophomores, without all the rough bumps of Self’s first year.

North Carolina: Unlike KU, the Tar Heels didn’t have as much to change with their new coach, because the departing one, Matt Doherty, was a Williams assistant at KU and ran much the same type of game, which emphasizes a break-neck transition game and doesn’t put as much emphasis on shut-down defense as it does on scoring more points faster than your opponent. And Williams definitely had the players to do it this year, even if these were the same players who had forced Williams’ friend Doherty to quit.

Unfortunately for UNC, they also play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is arguably the toughest conference this year, and far tougher than the Big XII. Thus the .500 conference record, while having a better ranking in the polls than KU. The problem is the high competition across the board didn’t allow UNC to post the kind of record they would have liked, especially with pretty spotty defensive play and occasionally cold shooting streaks.

One important area in which KU definitely trumps UNC is in games against chief rivals. UNC has a rivalry with Duke basketball that is considered one of the greatest in sports, and Williams lost both games against Duke this season. KU, on the other hand, beat its archrival Missouri twice, including winning the last game to be played in the Tigers’ old stadium, Harnes Center.

How will each team fare in the tournament? While I seriously doubt either team will make it to the Final Four, they might go a long way to easing their fans disappointment by getting into the Elite Eight or Sweet Sixteen. And just maybe their fans will realize how spoiled they are to root for one of the top 25 teams in the country, and be grateful for it.