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Did Anyone Get The (Kansas) License Plate Of That Truck?

We're still trying to digest UNC's loss to Kansas. Losing in the Final Four is no big deal - three teams lose every year. And really, except for very unusual years, the odds are against every team. Once in awhile you have an overwhelming favorite, but that's increasingly rare with the advent of parity and early departures. It's almost impossible to build a huge power anymore.This wasn't about just losing, though. It was about the astonishment of seeing the #1 seed in the tournament look helpless for a good bit of the game. It was about seeing a team led by a guy who has become famous for his intensity, his refusal to "take a single play off," as Jay Bilas has put it, go down 42-10. UNC fought their way back to within four, but by the end, Kansas had rebuilt an 18 point lead.

The first question is: what the heck happened? That'll be dissected for a very long time to come. The second question: what's the damage?

There are two optimistic precedents for UNC, and unfortunately (for them) they have to point to Durham. The first was Duke's big loss to UNLV in 1990, when Vegas just ran them out of the building. The second was the Maryland game in 2001.

The '91 Vegas game, though, was largely overshadowed by the epic upset in 1991. And while the Maryland game has parallels - Duke went down by 22 to the Terps in the first half - the biggest difference is that Duke's comeback succeeded. In both cases, the losses led to championships.

And in both cases, too, what won those games for Duke was largely defense. Duke refused to back down to Vegas, and once they started attacking Maryland, the Terps basically folded.

UNC was - and everyone from Ol' Roy down will agree - simply atrocious for the first part of the game. They did show heart in cutting the lead back to four, but they couldn't shut Kansas down. KU shot 53.1% to UNC's 35.8%, and outrebounded the nation's top rebounding team 39-32.

Williams places the blame on himself, which is what you would expect the coach to do. Players shouldn't have any problem getting themselves motivated to be on the biggest stage, though, and UNC's (overall) wretched performance was just horrible. We should say that we always try to keep in mind how little people outside the locker room know about anything. It's entirely possible that a bug hit the team, or that (and we say this not because we know anything but because it's a conceivable explanation) some guys broke curfew and stayed out late. Who knows?

Fundamentally, though, Williams is correct: he is the leader, and the guy who is supposed to have his team emotionally and physically prepared. For whatever reason, that didn't happen, and only the people in the lockerroom can answer specifically what happened.

The second question is probably more interesting. If UNC had won, then Williams might have ended up with two titles to his credit (although Memphis is looking like a mighty big roadblock), and while one title validates you as a superior coach (just ask Gary Williams - he'll be glad to tell you..and you, and you, and you over there with the broom, too), two puts you in a different orbit.

Some of the questions that were silenced in 2005 may come back now: that team learned to play solid defense, but they weren't Ol' Roy's recruits (side track: what do you think Matt Doherty thought while watching this game? Clearly he's had some bitterness about how his time in Chapel Hill ended, with his old boss at Kansas replacing him and talking about fixing what was broken. Watching the game with him must have been fascinating. He could have gone 100 different emotional directions by the second time out). Questions about his ability to coach defense are sure to come back up. It may or may not affect recruiting, but a lot of you follow things closely enough to understand how that game works. Some coaches recruit negatively, and they'll be telling kids that Ol' Roy knows how to run, but he doesn't know how to tackle, if you'll forgive the cross-sports metaphor. He'll win 25 or 30 games next year, and the other coaches, regardless, will try their best to undercut him.

UNC's credibility, which Williams has painstakingly rebuilt, took a big hit. We were ready to believe the inevitability of Hansbrough argument, that his intensity could not be deterred in a big game. Well, apparently it can, to the point where he lost his cool a couple of times.

One other argument which took a hit: the notion that UNC's depth is a big help. One could argue, surely, that it helped to get them to the Final Four, that having lost of bodies to throw at people was valuable. When push came to shove, though, Williams' rotation was tighter than John D. Rockefeller's legendarily tight wallet: Quentin Thomas got 13 minutes, Danny Green got 20. Other than that, Alex Stepheson got six.

Despite the arguments that UNC's extensive use of the bench was somehow radical, the reality for UNC and everyone else is that when you get into the big games, nobody is playing the same way. The Final Four by its very nature forces profoundly conservative basketball, because each mistake is magnified. That's somewhat less true this year, as Memphis and Kansas have made a joke of their opponents so far, but by and large, it's true. Kansas basically went eight deep, and Memphis got at least 27 minutes from each starter, and that might have gone up had Joey Dorsey not had some foul trouble.

Anyway, the discussion about Kansas and UNC is going to go on for a long time. In 1990, Duke had a major hangover from Vegas, to the point where no in 1991 wanted to talk much about the previous game.

UNC almost surely won't get a straight-up rematch with Kansas - there will likely be players gone from both sides - but the best way, probably the only way, to end what is going to be a long conversation about what amounts to a double choke (the beginning and the end of the game) is to go back next year and make up for it. As UNC has shown for three seasons now, with dispiriting losses to George Mason, Georgetown, and Kansas, having a great regular season and a high rating guarantees you nothing Needless to say, Duke fans understand this now as well.