KANSAS CITY--In the immediate afterglow of Carolina's 78-71 win over Villanova on Friday night, Jackson Simmons considered the prospect of facing top-seeded Kansas in an NCAA Tournament game 45 minutes from the KU campus on national television.
"I get chill bumps right now just thinking about it," Simmons said. "That kind of game is what you live for. It's two of the titanic programs in college basketball history. It's great players, great coaches and great history all the way around. It's going to be a lot of fun."
It's not an especially unique matchup for Carolina, because the Tar Heels and Jayhawks played exactly 364 days ago from Sunday's round of 32 clash. But it is unique in this way: Carolina will be the heavy underdog.
Sunday will mark the first time in the Roy Williams era that Carolina plays an NCAA Tournament game in which they are seeded more than three seeds lower than the opponent. It will be just the fifth such tournament game for the program since the NCAA started seeding the field in 1979 (Carolina is 3-1 in the previous four games).
One of the very first big wins Williams had in his Carolina head coaching career came in his first season back, when his team upended top-ranked Connecticut at the Smith Center. At the press conference before that game, Williams said, "I love being the underdog if we're really good. It's a great weapon if you can make a team that is really good feel that everyone is against them or that they are the underdog."
This year's Tar Heels are already accustomed to the idea of playing the spoiler. After all, one of the most common storylines over the past month--from the head coach and his players--has been that this is a Carolina team that was given up on midway through the season by many observers.
"We've faced a lot of adversity, but we've stuck to it," Reggie Bullock said. "People said we weren't going to make the tournament, but we stuck with it. It's great to see a young group like this fight through it and have a successful season like we're having now."
The truth is that given all the variables in play this year, a "successful season" would turn into a "wildly successful season" with a win on Sunday in Kansas City.
So the obvious question follows: do the 2012-13 Tar Heels fit Williams's above description of being "really good"? A major area of concern with the Jayhawks will be post play. Villanova dominated the Tar Heels on the boards, holding a 37-28 rebounding edge, a 38-18 advantage in points in the paint and 17-6 edge on second chance points. The second chance opportunities could have been even worse, but the Wildcats failed to capitalize on several point-blank chances. There was a lengthy stretch of the second half when Villanova seemed to get a hand on every missed shot.
Kansas, meanwhile, made just one field goal outside the paint in its NCAA Tournament opener against Western Kentucky and ranked 15th in the country in rebounding margin. But it can be done--the Tar Heels played six games against opponents ranked in the top 21 in that category this season, and went 4-2 against them.
"Part of it is having the mindset to just go get the rebound," Simmons said. "But the biggest thing is that we have to be the team that makes first contact when we are boxing out. Jeff Withey and Kevin Young are relentless in attacking the boards. We have to match their intensity and be the ones who make first contact with all five guys, not just in the post."
The Tar Heels will, of course, have to do it in essentially a road environment. Kansas State lost on Friday at the Sprint Center, which means some of their fans are likely to head home and dump tickets...probably into the waiting arms of Kansas fans. It's not an entirely unfamiliar scenario, as the Jayhawks were also the overwhelming crowd favorite in last year's regional final in St. Louis.
Carolina players won't have to look far to find an example of what can happen when a team disappoints a rowdy partisan crowd in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, they can look right out their hotel window, since Municipal Auditorium, the site of the 1957 NCAA championship game between Carolina and Kansas, is directly across the street from the team hotel.
Lennie Rosenbluth, who played in that game for the Tar Heels, returned to that venue on Thursday afternoon. Fifty-six years later almost to the day, one of the very first things he remembered was the hostile environment.
"There were Kansas people everywhere," he said. "But it got so quiet in here at the end."