On a January afternoon in Kansas, Jayhawk Coach Roy Williams experienced something completely unfamiliar.
"It was a helpless kind of feeling in the second half," Williams said as he recalled watching Arizona storm from 20 points behind in the first half to defeat the Jayhawks, 91-74, turning the game with a 37-point swing. "I'd never had that kind of experience in Allen Fieldhouse."
Now a March afternoon has brought Arizona (28-3) and Kansas (28-7) together again in the West Regional final today at the Arrowhead Pond, with the winner headed to the Final Four in New Orleans.
"You're not talking about somebody you've seen on tape. We've played them in person," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said. "We were down 20 in the first half, so we know how good they are."
Anybody who watched Thursday's semifinals has an inkling too, after seeing Arizona blow by Notre Dame and Kansas outlast Duke in two brilliant performances.
It is a matchup of teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the preseason poll, but they meet today three victories short of a national championship.
"It's the draw," shrugged Arizona guard Salim Stoudamire, who scored 32 points in the Wildcats' victory two months ago, 20 of them in the second half. "You have two great teams, and we should meet. I'm just excited to be playing in this game."
Sorting out the psychological angles in a rematch of a game of such wild swings is no simple task.
"Psychologically, if that ballgame in January still has an effect on us, then we're not ready to play," Kansas guard Keith Langford said. "We have to look past that. We're a better basketball team than we were back then."
Arizona is too, however, with Luke Walton and Stoudamire finally completely fit after overcoming early-season ankle injuries and Channing Frye growing from a young center with potential to an emerging force.
"Last year I thought he was OK," Williams said. "I look now and he'll be a pro and one of these days could be a lottery pick."
One thing is for certain anyway. The winner today is going to have to play more than one great half.
"If you play great basketball for 20 minutes and sorry basketball for 20 minutes, you lose by 17," Williams said. "We played probably our best half of the year ... and we followed it up with probably our worst half of the year."
It might take the best game of the year by either team to win today.
"You know, in the back of our minds, we realize what happened and we're confident we can play well against them," said Kansas forward Nick Collison, who scored a career-high 33 points and had 19 rebounds in the semifinal victory over Duke. "But we saw what can happen when we're too tentative and don't attack. So I think that experience will do nothing but help us if we look at it the right way."
After Collison's performance against Duke, a team that had no player capable of defending him, Arizona is steeling itself contain him.
"Nick Collison, in my view, I've never played a better player in my college career," Arizona forward Rick Anderson said. "He just takes people apart, plain and simple."
Added Frye: "I think Nick Collison is the best opponent I've played against in the post [and] one of the most fundamentally sound big men."
Arizona's trump card might be its superior depth, certainly a factor in its second-half surge in the first meeting.
Kansas goes only seven players deep. Arizona goes a solid nine. That's helpful when trying to defend against the Kansas running game.
"The main thing is to get back on defense early," Walton said. "They like to score and push the ball. [Guard Kirk Hinrich] had an off shooting night last game, so he's definitely going to come out shooting it. I doubt he's going to shoot the ball like that back-to-back games. We're going to have to do a good job of containing him as well."
The winner, Arizona guard Jason Gardner reiterated, will be the team that plays more than one great half.
"I think both teams know that they can't play half games," Gardner said. "Both teams are expected to come out and play the full 40 minutes."
And the one that wins the mind game probably will win the game.
"No question, I think the psychological factor is extremely important," Williams said. "Me personally, I think it's a huge factor because they beat our tails last time and I'm going to be fired up."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
NCAA Tournament at a Glance
*--* WEST REGIONAL Today's Championship at Arrowhead Pond, 4:05 p.m. * (1) Arizona vs. (2) Kansas
*--* SOUTH REGIONAL Friday's Results at San Antonio * (1) Texas 82, (5) Connecticut 78 * (7) Mich. St. 60, (6) Maryland 58 Sunday's Championship * (1) Texas vs. (7) Michigan State
*--* EAST REGIONAL Friday's Results at Albany, N.Y. * (1) Oklahoma 65, (12) Butler 54 * (3) Syracuse 79, (10) Auburn 78 Sunday's Championship * (1) Oklahoma vs. (3) Syracuse