Two years ago, Williams started the wheel in motion

Originally Published: March 15, 2005
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Basketball's big bang occurred in 2003.

And like popular religious theory pertaining to the original big bang a few billion years earlier, it happened at the behest of a deity.

Roy Williams
Roy Williams' Tar Heels could meet up with Kansas in the regional final.
Dean Smith, creator of blue heaven, called Roy Williams to come home. Williams was not going to turn down his father figure, alma mater and home state a second time. Though he would again milk the situation for maximum maudlin effect, Williams managed to leave his dadgum kids at Kansas for North Carolina.

The subsequent chain reaction sent Bill Self from Illinois to Kansas, and Bruce Weber from Southern Illinois to Illinois. Thus the order of the college hoops universe was fundamentally altered.

Two years later, we have a sharp contrast to the expanding universe theory. The basketball planets are rushing back together on a remarkable collision course.

The three coaches who swapped jobs now find themselves the central figures of this 2005 NCAA Tournament – all of them competing for a crowning career achievement with someone else's players. Williams to Self to Weber sounds like a double-play combination, but it's actually the single-elimination story line of the next three weeks.

"You've got three great programs, each coach moves, and they're all in the top five," Weber said. "It's pretty amazing, it's ironic, it's a great story line."

All three hires were slam-dunk choices that have paid off spectacularly: Weber, originally considered the third wheel in this deal, has had the No. 1 team in America 15 weeks running; Williams led Carolina to its first outright ACC title in 12 years and has what many consider the team to beat; and Self's Jayhawks were the last No. 1 before Illinois, and remain No. 1 in the RPI.

(It's worth noting that slam dunks sometimes bang embarrassingly off the rim. See, most recently, Pete Gillen at Virginia and Buzz Peterson at Tennessee.)

Now comes the quest for final validation, as each coach tries to go where he's never been before. Williams, with four Final Fours to his credit, hopes he can win his first ring – with Matt Doherty's recruits. Self, who has reached three regional finals at three different schools, would love to make his first Final Four – with Williams' upperclassmen. And Weber, who has made a pair of Sweet Sixteens, is striving to go further – with the players Self left behind.

Potential reunion games – or "drama games," as one media member put it in a question to Weber at the Big Ten tournament – would be down the road, when the stakes are higher. Williams wouldn't have to face his old players until the Syracuse Regional final. Self wouldn't have to worry about playing against Dee Brown & Co. until the Final Four. Weber also was spared a potential second-round game with Southern Illinois when the Salukis drew a No. 7 seed in the Chicago Regional.

"I'm just glad they're not the 8-9 [game] like a lot of people were talking about," he said.

As is usually the case in these situations, the players seem more at ease than the coaches.

Self said his players noticed they were in the same region with Carolina but hardly obsessed over it.

"There wasn't much of a reaction," he said. "Obviously, there would be some reaction if we're both fortunate enough to make it to the second weekend. But I didn't sense much. It's a two-game tournament for us right now."

For Illinois, the reaction was similar. The Illini all knew where their former coach was located in the bracket, but it was hardly the pressing topic in the locker room after winning the Big Ten title.

"It would be a great game to play in," said center Jack Ingram, who played for Self at both Tulsa and Illinois. "He would know us real well, and we would have a lot to play for. That would be the national championship game, so we would both be very happy to be there."

Said Illinois guard Luther Head: "We would probably like it [the chance to play against Self]. We like to play against tough competition. Obviously, there would be some emotion involved for the fans and stuff, but it would be just another game."

Williams has said that watching the Jayhawks is too emotionally difficult, so he has tended to avoid it. Self readily admits that he follows his former team closely – and proudly.

After Self's Jayhawks beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena in early January, the topic of Illinois came up indirectly. Self enthusiastically said, "Have you seen those guys play? Man, they look good. I watch 'em every chance I get."

Self estimates that he's seen at least two-thirds of Illinois' games this season – and enjoyed it.

"I'm really proud of them," he said. "They've hung together. They've also operated under some stress this season, which will make them tougher."

Last year, Weber had his famous "Death of Bill Self Night" in Champaign. He wore a black suit to a game and announced afterward that he was burying the Self Era – his way of telling fans, players and the media that he was in charge now, and it was time for everyone to turn the page.

Weber said this week that Brown was the last guy to get on board. Once Brown came around, the Illini won 13 of their last 15 games last season and made the Sweet Sixteen. This year speaks for itself, and Brown's Big Ten Player of the Year status shows that he and Weber are in harmonic convergence.

So the players should be able to handle the potential drama games. The coaches will have to endure them. The hard part might be the fans.

You can't blame the schools for wanting the coaches they got. You can't blame the coaches for making the moves. The jobs they traded, the prestige they upgraded – as much as Kansas and Illinois fans don't want to hear it, these were all understandable steps up the ladder.

But, fans being fans, the blame is there nonetheless. Heartfelt and eternal. Nobody gets over rejection easily.

The Kansas fans now rip Roy Williams – the same aw-shuckster they once thought hung the moon over the prairie wheat fields. On the Jayhawk message boards this week, some fans are predicting coaching panic by Williams, resulting in a second-round upset loss for his No. 1-seed Tar Heels to Iowa State. And if that doesn't happen, well, they'd love to see Ol' Roy lose to his ol' players in a regional final.

The Illinois fans now bash Bill Self – the same smoothie they once adored for recruiting the talent that finally allowed the Illini to stand toe-to-toe with America's Cadillac programs. On one Illinois message board, a fan wrote, "If Self was still the coach, the Illini would be a 6 seed." He got no argument, other than a fan who said the Illini would be 24-7 and still land a top seed "because [Self] is the media darling."

At least Southern Illinois seems to have moved on gracefully – and also successfully. The reality of the situation is that, on the Missouri Valley level, fans are resigned to losing their coaches to the Big Ten and its ilk.

Who gets the last laugh? The March to the Arch holds the final answer.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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