When Carolina and Kansas showed up in the same portion of the bracket on Sunday night's selection show, many Tar Heel fans probably groaned at the familiar matchup. It's the third time in the last nine years the two teams have been placed in the same region, and a potential Sunday game between the two storied programs would be the third NCAA Tournament clash in the last six years.
Before that game can ever happen, though, there's an equally familiar opponent standing in the way: ninth-seeded Villanova. In Carolina's NCAA Tournament history, the program has faced three squads more than any other: Kansas (Carolina is 2-3 all-time in NCAA play), Michigan State (5-0) and Villanova (4-1).
That's especially impressive considering that Villanova and Carolina didn't meet in the postseason until 1982. Michigan State and Kansas, meanwhile, have a much longer history with the Tar Heels--both were opponents during the 1957 Final Four (before it was even called the Final Four).
Those games against the Wildcats have included some key wins on the way to a Tar Heel national championship. In fact, the winner of the Carolina-Villanova game has gone on to win the national title in four of the five meetings. The trend started in 1982, the first-ever postseason meeting between the two programs. Michael Jordan scored 15 points and Jimmy Black distributed 10 assists to lead Dean Smith's team to a 70-60 East regional final win in Raleigh. The Tar Heels shot 75 percent in the second half, including scoring on their final 16 possessions of the game.
"They are a class team and they have a class coach," Villanova coach Rollie Massimino said after the game. "They showed us today why they are the number one team in the country."
Three years later, the teams met again, but this time it was Villanova that was on the way to a national title--featuring three key players (Ed Pinckney, Gary McLain and Dwayne McClain) who had also played in the '82 game against the Tar Heels. The game turned at the end of the first half, as Carolina put the ball in the hands of Kenny Smith with a 22-14 lead and a chance to play for the final shot of the half. But the sophomore point guard was called for traveling, and Pinckney converted a three-point play just before the buzzer on the other end--putting the Wildcats within five points despite having shot just 6-of-26 in the half.
That shot gave Villanova the momentum, and they turned it into a 16-for-21 shooting performance in the second half. The Wildcats also used a matchup zone to great effectiveness in their 56-44 win in the Southeast regional final.
"It was a combination of their defense and our offense," Dean Smith said after the game. "We misfired on things we knew we could do. We threw passes I couldn't believe we threw."
Brad Daugherty led the Tar Heels with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
1991 brought the only outlier to the series. George Lynch posted a double-double (19 points and 10 rebounds) and current assistant coach Hubert Davis scored 18 points to lead the top-seeded Tar Heels over 9th-seeded Villanova, 84-69, in the second round in Syracuse. After the Wildcats closed an 18-point UNC lead to just seven with 8:24 left, Smith changed defenses and went to his trademark scramble. The Tar Heels forced four straight turnovers, stretched the lead and cruised to the win.
So, what exactly is the scramble?
"You show them a man-to-man, then when a man begins a dribble or a first pass, depending on which we call, we switch to a zone press," Smith explained in a clinic-like postgame. "They're running a man-to-man offense, which is not good against a zone press."
Massimino didn't elaborate quite as much.
"Their athleticism took over," the Villanova coach said.
Although this was the one time the NCAA Tournament winner between these two squads didn't go on to win the national title, Carolina did advance to the Final Four--and the freshmen and sophomores on that team would go on to form the core of the 1993 national champions.
After 1991, the series went on hiatus, although the two teams did meet in the old ACC-Big East Challenge in 1992 and then scheduled an enjoyable home-and-home series in the mid-1990s. They wouldn't meet again in the postseason until the 2005 NCAA Tournament, in perhaps the pivotal game along that team's run to the national title.
In that game, a regional semifinal also played in Syracuse, the Wildcats used their four-guard lineup flawlessly, darting to a 33-29 halftime lead and getting 28 points from Randy Foye. The Tar Heels eventually edged out to a three-point lead, and thought they had cut into the lead as Allan Ray sank a shot with seconds remaining. But Ray was whistled for traveling, and the Tar Heels held on for a 67-66 win that was their closest game on the way to the national title.
"I thought the ref called the foul, but he called the walk," Ray said.
Lost in the late-game controversy was Carolina surviving foul trouble to point guard Raymond Felton, who fouled out with 2:11 left. Senior Melvin Scott stepped in for Felton, with Roy Williams telling him, "We need you to be big-time," as Scott checked in at the scorer's table.
With 28.9 seconds left, Scott toed the line for a pair of free throws with Carolina clinging to a 64-62 lead. Classmate Jawad Williams leaned over to Felton on the Tar Heel bench. "Don't worry about it," Jawad said, "Melvin's going to make them."
"Everyone kept telling me, 'You're fine, you're fine,'" Scott said. "And I just wanted to tell them, 'I know.'"
He made them both, and Carolina persevered in the team's closest test on the way to the national title.
The game wasn't as close in 2009 when the teams met in the Final Four, where top-seeded Carolina was the favorite and third-seeded Villanova was a surprise. The game was never very much in doubt, as the Wildcats shot just 32.9% from the field and made only five of their 27 three-point attempts. Tyler Hansbrough had 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Ty Lawson scored 22 and Wayne Ellington--on his way to Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors--added 20.
"It hasn't hit me yet," Danny Green said right after the game, as his senior class advanced to the doorstep of a national title with one college game left to play. "I know our seniors are going to leave it on the floor. It's our last game. We have nothing else to play for. Why not let it be us?"