9:20 PM EST, CBS – Line: Kansas -4.0, Over/Under: 152.0
After three weeks of madness, it all comes down to one final showdown in the Big Easy, as the eighth-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels look to cap their surprising run off against the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks, in this National Championship Game from Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Though they were every bit the blue blood that the other participants in Saturday’s Final Four were, North Carolina (29-9, 15-5 in ACC) were easily the most unlikely member of the field, advancing to their NCAA-record TWENTY-FIRST National Semifinal despite being an Eight Seed, which just so happened to be their lowest seeding in school history. Granted, this season was supposed to be one of transition for the Tar Heels, who said goodbye to (longtime Head Coach) Roy Williams following eighteen outrageously successful years in Chapel Hill, claiming NINE Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, SIXTEEN NCAA Tournament appearances, FIVE Final Fours, FOUR trips to the National Final, and THREE NCAA Championships (2005, 2009, 2017). Needless to say, that’s quite the standard for (Head Coach) Hubert Davis to live up to, though it’s easy to make the argument that the 51-year-old was indeed the most qualified candidate to take the reins from Williams. A UNC graduate who participated in the 1991 Final Four, Davis spent nine years as Williams’ chief lieutenant on the bench, and as such was called upon by the Athletic Department to become their fifteenth Head Coach in school history. However, things did not begin smoothly for Davis and the Heels, who fell out of the rankings altogether following back-to-back early losses to Purdue (84-93) and Tennessee (72-89), and for much of the campaign appeared as if they were going to be left out of the NCAA Tournament for just the fourth time since 1974. With that said, the proverbial light came on following successive ugly road losses at Miami (57-85) and Wake Forest (76-98); North Carolina closed the regular season on an 11-2 run, capping it off with a resounding 94-81 victory at (No. 9) Duke, which just so happened to be Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Arena. Davis’ troops carried that momentum on into the tourney, where they hammered Marquette (95-63), survived a furious rally from (reigning National Champion and top seed) Baylor (93-86, OT), eliminated last year’s Final Four participant, UCLA (73-66), and utterly humiliated this year’s tournament darling, (fifteen seed) Saint Peter’s (69-49), before setting up a titanic rematch with the Blue Devils. Believe it or not, Saturday’s affair was the first time in 258 meetings that the Tabacco Road residents met in the tournament, with a trip to the National Final on the line in what turned out to be Krzyzewski’s final contest as Head Coach of the program that he guided for nearly half a century. This epic matchup certainly lived up to the billing with EIGHTEEN lead changes and a dozen ties; both teams brought their best defensively, though the difference came from beyond the arc and at the charity stripe, where the Tar Heels were +15 and +5 respectively, all the while battering the Blue Devils on the glass (48-38). (Sophomore Guard) Caleb Love (15.7 PTS, 37.1% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 86.4% FT, 3.4 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.0 STL, 15.4 PER) was outstanding with a game-high twenty-eight points on an efficient 11-of-20 shooting (55.0%), including a late dagger from downtown to widen his team’s lead. (Sophomore Guard) R.J. Davis (13.5 PTS, 43.0% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 82.6% FT, 4.1 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.6 PER) and (Oklahoma Senior transfer) Brady Manek (15.2 PTS, 49.3% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 68.9% FT, 5.9 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 21.9 PER) added eighteen and fourteen points respectively, combining for 5-of-10 shooting from three (50.0%), while the former added seven rebounds and four assists in the 81-77 victory. However, the biggest story from the Heels’ perspective was (and continues to be) Armando Bacot (16.3 PTS, 57.9% FG, 66.8% FT, 13.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.7 BLK, 29.5 PER), who absolutely DOMINATED the glass with TWENTY-ONE rebounds, eight being of the offensive variety, the most by any player in the tourney since the early 90s. Totaling eleven points to boot, it was the Junior’s THIRTIETH double-double of the campaign, which stands as only one behind the NCAA record set by (Hall of Famer) David Robinson back in 1987. Unfortunately, Bacot appeared to suffer a sprained right ankle late in the second half before eventually fouling out, leaving his status for tonight’s Final currently up in the air. North Carolina are gunning for their seventh National Title in school history, and meet Kansas for the twelfth time overall and seventh time in the tourney; the Tar Heels have lost each of their last three meetings with the Jayhawks, all by double-digits, including an 84-66 drubbing in the 2008 National Semifinal. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for UNC, who are 6-5 all-time against the denizens of Lawrence, besting them in the 1957 National Title Game, an affair that featured three overtimes and some guy named Wilt Chamberlain to claim their fist National Championship.
Meanwhile, the lone One Seed to reach this year’s Final Four was none other than Kansas (33-6, 14-4 in Big XII), who made their SIXTEENTH Final Four appearance and thus find themselves competing in their TENTH National Final in hopes of claiming what would be their FOURTH National Championship. The all-time winningest program in college basketball history (2,356 wins), the Jayhawks are very much on the path of redemption, particularly when you consider that the past few years haven’t been necessarily kind to the residents of the Phog. After being upset in the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, (Head Coach) Bill Self and the program were issued a Notice of Allegation from the NCAA for FIVE Level One violations as part of a federal investigation into Adidas allegedly paying recruits to go to Lawrence. While the looming punishment was indeed severe at the time (scholarship and postseason sanctions for the program, while Self faced a lengthy suspension), the ‘Hawks nonetheless managed to persevere en route to a 28-3 finish and yet another Big XII title while also earning a unanimous No. One Overall Ranking in the final regular season AP Poll. However, Self’s troops were unable to do much more than that due to the NCAA Tournament being abruptly canceled courtesy of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. After flaming out in the second round for the second time in three years in 2020, Kansas got back to business this season, spending the entire campaign ranked within the Top-10 of the AP Poll, ending the regular season where they began at third overall and earning one of those precious No. One Seeds in the tourney. After embarrassing Texas Southern (83-56) in the first round, they gutted out tough victories over the likes of Creighton (79-72) and Providence (66-61), before erupting in the second half of a 76-50 blowout of Miami in the Elite Eight, setting up a battle with second-seeded Villanova in the Final Four. This one was particularly noteworthy for the Jayhawks, who had been carrying a grudge against the Wildcats for a few years after being ran off the hardwood in the 2018 National Semifinal, 95-79. A rematch four years in the making, the Big XII Champions earned a sweet taste of payback in Saturday’s 81-65 triumph, eviscerating their shorthanded opponent from both within the arc and beyond it. Kansas shot 53.7% overall, including 16-of-30 on two-point felid goals (53.3%) and a stellar 13-of-24 on threes (54.2%), with the dynamic duo of (Senior Forward) David McCormack (10.5 PTS, 51.1% FG, 75.9% FT, 6.9 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.8 BLK, 24.7 PER) and (Senior Swingman) Ochai Agbaji (18.9 PTS, 47.6% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 76.4% FT, 5.1 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.6 BLK, 21.1 PER) combining for a whopping FORTY-SIX of their team’s eighty-one points. It’s appropriate that two members of that 2020 side were at the forefront of this effort, for McCormack, who featured in just eighteen minutes of the romp over Miami due to a sprained ankle, manhandled ‘Nova in the paint as his side outscored them by sixteen points in that area of the court, while Agbaji was clearly in his bag from downtown, netting 6-of-7 treys (85.7%). Defensively, Kansas snuffed out the representatives from the Big East, relegating them to just 38.6% shooting from the field, including a miserable 9-of-26 from within the arc (34.6%), while battering them on the glass (35-28) and permitting just twelve assists. Now they’re set to face North Carolina, who as we stated earlier, they share quite a history with. Winning five of their last eight encounters with the Tar Heels, including each of the last three which came in the NCAA Tournament, these programs share a lot of connective tissue; when Kansas won their second National Title in 1987, they were led by (Head Coach) Larry Brown, who was a North Carolina graduate and Assistant Coach under Dean Smith, while longtime Jayhawks Head Coach, Roy Williams, spent fifteen years in Lawrence leading them to FOURTEEN straight NCAA Tournaments, NINE Big XII titles, FOUR Final Fours, and TWO National Finals, before embarking on that aforementioned tenure in Chapel Hill. With that said, this matchup is HUGE for Self, who if he hasn’t already, can vindicate his image in the wake of those previous allegations, and continue to add to his legacy at Kansas. In nineteen years at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the 59-year-old has posted a win percentage of .817, while leading the Jayhawks SIXTEEN Big XII Championships, including an NCAA record FOURTEEN in a row, EIGHTEEN NCAA Tournament appearances, FOUR Final Fours, and a National Championship back in 2008. Back in April of 2021, he signed a lifetime contract with Kansas that should keep him in Lawrence for the foreseeable future and beyond, and now finds himself presented with a golden opportunity to repay the faith that the school has placed in him.