ST. LOUIS -- The pressure's on Kansas and North Carolina to get to the Final Four, but the pressure's always on Kansas and North Carolina to get to the Final Four. That's what happens when you're Kansas, when you're North Carolina. Conference titles and 30-win seasons are nice, but that's not why players and coaches are at those schools. They're at Kansas and North Carolina to reach the Final Four. Anything less is a failure.
The pressure's on Kansas and North Carolina on Sunday? Nothing new there.
Only, yes there is.
Because this is a different sort of pressure. I'm not sure if it's different in a positive way or a negative way, but it's different. Normally the pressure is on these teams to win a game like the Midwest Regional final because they're that good. You're Kansas. You're North Carolina. You better win this game, because you're that good.
Not Sunday. Sunday, you better win this game because the other team is that bad.
Bad being a relative term, of course. Maybe bad isn't the word I'm looking for here. Maybe instead of "bad," the right word is "beatable" -- because Kansas and North Carolina are nothing if not beatable. If you're Kansas or North Carolina and you're one game away from the Final Four, and the team in your way is as beatable as the team in the way Sunday, you have to win this game.
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To lose? To that bunch? Embarrassing.
That's the pressure on Kansas and North Carolina. It's different from the usual pressure, as described so bluntly by Kansas coach Bill Self on Saturday.
"Kansas, Carolina -- winning is a relief," Self said. "Losing is a disaster."
It's a disaster when you're Kansas and you lose in the first round to Bucknell or Bradley, or in the second round to Northern Iowa. And it's a disaster when you're Kansas and you get all the way to the Elite Eight and you lose to a North Carolina team that was horrible two days earlier against Ohio and could possibly be that horrible again Sunday, given that UNC point guard Kendall Marshall is one of the most valuable players in college basketball -- and he'll either miss the game or try to play one-handed, six days after surgery, with a screw in his wrist.
The way UNC coach Roy Williams describes Kendall Marshall, you would think the Tar Heels are lost without him. Which, come to think of it, is how they looked Friday against 13th-seeded Ohio when they outrebounded the Bobcats by 33, attempted three times as many free throws, saw Ohio's leading scorer turn in a 3-for-20 shooting disaster ... and still needed Ohio to miss a free throw with 25 seconds left in regulation and then clang a 40-footer off the rim at the buzzer simply to get to overtime.
Listen to how Roy Williams describes Kendall Marshall:
"It's just one player, but I think this is the best example," Williams said, pausing before he continued. "I understand the Indianapolis Colts were in the playoffs [in 2010], then they lose Peyton Manning, and they got the No. 1 pick in the draft [after going 2-14 in 2011 without Manning]. That's how important Kendall is to us."
So that's how it'll be for Kansas on Sunday: Losing to the Tar Heels minus Marshall would be like an NFL team losing to the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. Humiliating. And all that's at stake is a spot in the Final Four.
As for North Carolina, losing to Kansas would be losing to a team with decidedly less talent, and suffering that loss on the doorstep of the Final Four would be unacceptable, whether or not Marshall plays. Against 11th-seeded North Carolina State on Friday, Kansas made two shots all game from outside of four feet.
"For the game," Self said, then repeated himself because that simply doesn't happen.
"For the game."
Unlike the typical edition of Kansas basketball, the Jayhawks have just one player who will make headlines in the NBA, power forward Thomas Robinson. The Jayhawks have a handful of guys who could spend time on NBA rosters -- Jeff Withey, Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson -- but only Robinson will be a lottery pick.
North Carolina? John Henson could be a lottery pick. Tyler Zeller, too. Harrison Barnes is said to be a no-brainer for the lottery as well, though jeez -- not based on what I saw Friday. Reggie Bullock will play in the NBA, and Bill Self himself said this week that UNC freshman seventh man James Michael McAdoo will make it in the league as well. Bottom line, North Carolina has Kansas at a decided talent disadvantage, and losing to such a team would hurt. Especially in the Elite Eight.
It's the damndest thing. North Carolina is playing Kansas, and Kansas is playing North Carolina, and both teams caught a break.
With a spot in the Final Four at stake, each team could have faced someone a lot better.