The Kansas Jayhawks had won the national championship in 1988, under the leadership of Larry Brown and the star performance of Danny Manning. But Brown’s leadership also put the program on NCAA probation and he skipped town when Manning graduated that same year. The Jayhawks bottomed out and had to be rebuilt. It was Roy Williams who did the rebuilding and the 1991 NCAA Tournament was his coming-out party.
Williams was a long-time North Carolina assistant, close to Tar Heel legend Dean Smith, and Williams was ready to be a head coach. After enduring the probation year of 1989, Williams got Kansas back to national relevance in 1990. They were a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, even though they did lose in the second round. One year later Williams was a #3 seed, and not expected to go much further.
The city of Charlotte was the host of the Southeast Regionals, where Kansas came after winning their first two games. The bracket was in good shape, with the favorites having held firm. Arkansas was the #1 seed, playing an aggressive attacking style under head coach Nolan Richardson, one that would win the program a national championship three years later.
Indiana was the #2 seed and Bob Knight’s national championship pedigree was well-established, with crowns in 1976, 1981 and 1987. Knight’s 1991 team was co-champion of a tough Big Ten. Kansas arrived at this region mostly as an afterthought.
Kansas quickly put that notion to rest in Thursday night’s Sweet 16 game against Indiana. The Jayhawks jumped all over the Hoosiers early, led 49-27 at half and coasted home to an eighteen-point win. On Saturday afternoon it was a different story. This time Arkansas had the early lead and was up by twelve at the half. KU absolutely dominated the second half, hanging a stunning 58 points on the Razorback defense after the intermission and winning 93-81.
Roy Williams was on his way to the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis, and it wasn’t with overwhelming talent. Whether it was guard Mike Maddox, inside player Mark Randall or personnel like Adonis Jordan and Alonzo Jamison, that wasn’t the stacked Jayhawks’ roster we would see in years to come. But they had reached a Final Four and beaten their bracket’s two best teams to do it.
A familiar foe awaited in Indy—Dean Smith and North Carolina were the opponent on Semi-Final Saturday. UNC had two players who would be key NBA players one day, Hubert Davis (Knicks) and Rick Fox (Lakers). Kansas won anyway, making key plays down the stretch in a 79-73 win.
The dream died on Monday night. Duke had beaten UNLV in one of the great Final Four games—in fact one of the great sporting events—ever played. The Blue Devils were in the Final Four for the fifth time in six years, they hadn’t yet won a title and they weren’t going to be denied this year. The talent gap Williams faced—Duke had Grant Hill and Christian Laettner—couldn’t be overcome in a 72-65 loss.
A national title would be a long time coming for both Williams and Kansas—in fact, he would be back in North Carolina by the time he got his ring in 2005. And Kansas would win it all under Bill Self in 2008. But Kansas would be a consistent high seed in the NCAA Tournament and a regular Final Four participant in a Roy Williams era that had its first big moment at the 1991 NCAA Tournament.