ST. LOUIS — It's been nine years since Roy Williams left Kansas, and he knows the Jayhawks and their fans have gotten over him.
No matter how much time passes, he'll never be able to say the same.
Williams would rather top-seeded North Carolina face almost anyone but his "second-favorite" team today, with a trip to the Final Four on the line. None of the players who played for him are still at Kansas, no one on the Jayhawks staff has ties to Williams, and coach Bill Self is building his own legacy in Lawrence.
For Williams, however, Kansas will always be personal.
"That was 15 years of my life that I tried to give everything," he said Saturday. "I don't think it'll ever feel good for me, regardless of the outcome. I don't think I'll ever feel comfortable with it."
Adding to that discomfort is that North Carolina (32-5) might be without dazzling point guard Kendall Marshall again. Marshall, who Williams called "our engine, our driver, the head of the thing," has a broken bone in his right wrist, and resumed basketball activity Saturday for the first time since being injured last Sunday.
Williams compiled a 418-101 record in 15 years as coach at Kansas, the second-best winning percentage behind Self, the man who replaced him. Williams took the Jayhawks to the NCAA Tournament in all but one of his seasons and reached the Final Four four times, including back-to-back appearances in 2002 and 2003. Kansas played for the title twice under Williams, falling to Duke in 1991 and Syracuse in 2003.
Considered one of the hottest coaching prospects around, he seemed content to stay at Kansas. He even turned down North Carolina, his alma mater and the place where he'd spent 10 years as Dean Smith's assistant, when the Tar Heels came calling in 2000.
When North Carolina asked again three years later, however, Williams couldn't say no. The proud program was in disarray, just one year removed from its first losing record in 40 years. The Tar Heels had lost more games (43) in the previous three seasons than Smith had in his last five, and they'd gone two years without making the NCAA Tournament.
Though Williams was going back home, to the only other program he loved, Kansas fans resented him for leaving and were bitter at what they saw as rejection.
"It was a back-handed compliment," Self said. "If they didn't care for him so much, why would they care if he left?"
Care, though, they did. For several years.
When Kansas and North Carolina met in the Final Four in 2008, fans showed up in "Benedict Williams" T-shirts. After Kansas walloped Carolina, Williams was ridiculed for wearing a Jayhawks sticker on his shirt as he watched the team he'd jilted win the title he never could.
"We didn't really feel too harsh feelings toward him because we had nothing to do with it. It was a personal decision he had to make," said Conner Teahan, the only Kansas player left from that 2008 team. "But Kansas fans really wanted us to win that game. It was huge for 'em because when he left, they were disappointed."
Said Williams, "It was really difficult for me, because I didn't think it was fair. ... But it's over with now, and time, as they say, will heal a lot of things."
It helps, of course, that both programs have thrived in the last nine years.
In addition to that NCAA title in 2008, Kansas (31-6) has won eight straight Big 12 titles under Self. This is the Jayhawks' second straight trip to the regional finals, and fifth with Self. They've had three straight 30-win seasons and five in the last six years. They've produced three All-Americans under Self, including consensus picks Wayne Simien and Sherron Collins, and more than a dozen NBA players.
"I took over a healthy program," Self said. "A lot of times when you want to change the culture is when you take over an unhealthy program. There was nothing wrong with our culture, it was great. Coach Williams and his staff had done a remarkable job for the 15 years they were there. ... He's made my job better, there's no question about that."
North Carolina, meanwhile, won the national title in 2005 and again in 2009, and is in the regional finals for the sixth time under Williams. The Tar Heels are a No. 1 seed for a record 14th time.
"It's something that you dream about all the time, getting yourself in this position," Williams said.
If only he didn't have to play Kansas.
This is only the second time Williams has faced the Jayhawks since he left Lawrence, Kan., and he has no interest in doing it more often. Jayhawks fans have, if not forgiven Williams, come to accept his departure, and Self said he thinks it would be a "great, great series" if Kansas and North Carolina would meet on a regular basis.
But Williams gave a quick, emphatic, "No," when asked if he'd be open to the idea.
"Too emotional for me. That's the bottom line," Williams said. "I tell my kids, what you would like to have in your life is someone who, when you hear their name, it makes you smile. That means that you've had a very positive impact on somebody. And when somebody says Allen Fieldhouse to me, that's exactly what I think about, all those positive thoughts, and I don't want to go in there as the coach of the opposing team."
Doing it on a neutral court will be hard enough.
"For 15 years, Kansas was my favorite basketball program of all time, and my second favorite was North Carolina," Williams said. "Now my favorite basketball program of all time is North Carolina, and my second is Kansas."
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