North Carolina vs. Kansas: The ultimate NCAA championship game preview
North Carolina, fresh off a historic win over archrival Duke in the Final Four, will play Kansas on Monday night for the national championship (9:20 PM, TBS).
Kansas, the Big 12 regular-season co-champion and conference tournament champion, was the lone 1 seed to reach the Final Four and as of Sunday morning, is a 5-point favorite to defeat the Tar Heels. A win would give Kansas its 4th national championship and first since 2008, when Mario’s Miracle sent the Jayhawks to overtime and ultimately a victory over John Calipari’s greatest Memphis team.
A win would make North Carolia just the second 8 seed in NCAA Tournament history to cut down the nets, joining Rollie Massimino’s 1985 Villanova team. The Tar Heels are the fourth 8 seed to play for the national champiponship, as Villanova, 2011 Butler and 2014 Kentucky have all previously appeared in the title game seeded eighth.
Here is Saturday Road’s ultimate game preview.
One of the sport’s blue-bloods will win the national championship on Monday night, whether it is title No. 7 for North Carolina or title No. 4 for Kansas. This North Carolina team, which spent much of the season on the bubble, did not even have a Quad 1 win until late February, lost to Kentucky by 29 and by 9 to a terrible Pittsburgh team in the Dean E. Smith Center, already has cemented its legacy as one of the most beloved UNC squads in Carolina basketball history. That’s what happens when you make a stunning run to the Final Four as an 8 seed and the run includes wins over the defending national champion in Baylor and one last, sweet, career-ending win over Mike Krzyzewski and that school 8 miles down the road.
If a North Carolina team has ever played in an NCAA Tournament game with house money, it is Hubert Davis’ Tar Heels on Monday night.
Kansas is in an entirely different position. The Jayhawks shared the Big 12 title with Baylor, then won the toughest conference tournament in the country in convincing fashion with three victories by 9 points or more on their way to a 1 seed. The Jayhawks then breezed through the Midwest Region, pushed only slightly by Creighton in the Round of 32 before reaching the Final Four, where they routed Villanova on Saturday evening. The Jayhawks have beat 3 of their 5 opponents in the NCAA Tournament by more than 16 points to advance to the championship game and have won 10 straight since losing to TCU on March 1.
A consistent question lurking in the background of Bill Self’s Hall of Fame career and tenure in Lawrence has been “Will he ever win another national championship?” It’s been 14 years since Mario’s Miracle sent the Memphis game to OT and eventually, Self’s lone national title. There have been close calls, including the runner-up finish in 2012 and another Final Four in 2018. There has also been the specter of a seemingly interminable NCAA investigation and a whole lot of NCAA Tournament heartbreak. If Kansas loses to an 8 seed North Carolina on Monday night, that may be the biggest heartache of the Self era at Kansas.
The Matchup, Part I: Two brilliant backcourts
The old adage, especially in the days of high-low basketball, was that big men could get you to March Madness but guard play would get you to the Final Four. Modern basketball has changed that a bit, as positionless basketball, five-out offense and the era of point forwards have changed the way many programs approach the game not just schematically, but also how coaches build teams from a roster construction standpoint.
As much as things change, of course, there are some constants, and one is that great guard play will still win you a lot of games in March.
These teams have brilliant backcourts, and the one that plays the best on Monday night may cut down the nets.
Kansas is led by the three-headed monster of Christian Braun, Remy Martin, and the All-American Ochai Agbaji.
It was Agbaji who set the terms of Saturday’s Final Four rout of Villanova by burying a 3 to open the game and hitting 3 more from deep before the third media timeout.
Ochai Agbaji: 12 points on 4 shot attempts
Villanova: 8 points on 10 shot attemptspic.twitter.com/Df2jkw6TRa
— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) April 2, 2022
When he’s hitting shots, there isn’t a better scorer in college basketball than Agbaji, who can get to the basket and finish, create his own look off the bounce or hit shots with ease coming off ball screens. But the All-American struggled in the tournament’s first 3 games, shooting poorly in wins over Texas Southern and Creighton and managing just 5 points against a strong Providence defense in the Sweet 16.
Kansas won anyway, and that’s the thing about this Jayhawks team. As Agbaji struggled, Christian Braun (13 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists on 5-of-9 shooting against Creighton) and super senior Remy Martin (21.5 per game in the Jayhawks’ wins over Creighton and Providence) took turns stepping up. That relieved pressure on Agbaji, who despite his struggles never appeared to be pressing. When Agbaji got it rolling Saturday, Villanova’s fate was all but settled in the opening half.
All 3 of the Kansas guards can shoot, with all averaging at least 35.7% from deep, though Martin doesn’t take a high volume of 3s. More vitally, they are masterful at getting into the paint, finishing, passing, and creating contact. They are a big reason the Jayhawks rank 6th nationally in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and 28th in 2-point field goal offense. Protecting driving lanes and forcing Kansas, who prefers to play fast (65th nationally in tempo), might not be in UNC’s DNA, as they are happy to run. But it may need to be part of the Tar Heels’ plan if they are going to win on Monday night.
As for North Carolina, the Tar Heels’ backcourt’s prowess is, by now, well documented.
Caleb Love’s 28 points were just the latest sign the sophomore guard has come a long way since a frustrating freshman season that saw him turnover-prone and unable to shoot well from deep (just 27% from outside on high volume as a freshman). The Tar Heels tend to go as Love goes, and of late, he’s been exceptional.
RJ Davis doesn’t get the publicity of Love, but he’s been every bit as vital to Carolina’s run to the title game. Davis poured in 30 in North Carolina’s win over Baylor, which was the one game in this tournament where Love played poorly. Davis shoots 38% from deep, is a strong driver and finisher, and added 18 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in Saturday night’s win over Duke. The duo of Love and Davis are joined by Leaky Black, the best perimeter and 1-on-1 defender the Tar Heels have and a player proud of his role despite the fact he’s not asked to do much other than be a defensive stopper and secondary ball handler.
The better backcourt will likely win the game.
The Matchup, Part II: Armando Bacot and David McCormack or, was the McCormack we just saw dominate Villanova real?
Armando Bacot’s legend only keeps growing. Saturday night, he posted another double-double, taking the national lead on the season in the process. He also snagged 21 rebounds, the most for a player at a Final Four since Kansas legend Nick Collison grabbed 21 boards in the Jayhawks’ national championship loss to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in 2003. Bacot has 5 double-doubles in the NCAA Tournament, and it was his ability to get Duke’s superb big, Mark Williams, into early foul trouble that changed the tenor of Saturday night’s semifinal.
Bacot is playing for history Monday night, too. His double-double Saturday night tied him with Tim Duncan for the all-time ACC single-season double-double record. Yes, that Tim Duncan. One more and he stands alone above the Big Fundamental.
North Carolina is tremendous on the glass, ranking 2nd nationally in rebounding rate and often dominating the offensive glass. Kansas isn’t a bad rebounding team — you can’t be and go to the Final Four — but McCormack, an elite offensive rebounder (4th in the country in offensive rebounding rate) and excellent defensive rebounder, is by far Kansas’ best weapon in that department.
McCormack isn’t typically a very effective player on offense, and he doesn’t have to be surrounded by as many weapons as Kansas has. But his 25-point, 9-rebound game against Villanova in the semifinals helped Kansas own the paint and he was also terrific against Miami in the Elite 8, dishing out 4 assists when the undersized Canes fired the post to help.
Bacot injured his ankle late against Duke. Davis said Bacot will be sore but play. If Bacot is close to 100%, he will be McCormack’s biggest test this tournament. Bacot is much quicker and far less back to the bucket than Eddie Lampkin, the TCU big that was probably the best McCormack faced in his league this season. McCormack won all of those battles, even limiting Lampkin in the Jayhawks loss to TCU on March 1. But Oscar Tshiebwe, another rebounding machine, dominated McCormack, scoring 17 points and snatching 14 boards in Kentucky’s win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in January. McCormack has to be ready for this challenge, or UNC will have a substantial advantage in the paint.
The X Factor: Jalen Wilson of Kansas
Jalen Wilson is a 3rd-year player with redshirt sophomore status, and a 2-year starter who is a bit of a jack of all trades on a team that, for the most part, has defined stars and defined roles. Wilson started fast a season ago only to fade as the competition improved; this season he’s been a consistent double-double threat and a huge reason that Kansas can space the floor so well and eviscerate you in the pick and roll. Whether he’s screening for Remy Martin, rolling to the hoop, or flaring out for a pick and pop (at 30% on his career, he shoots just well enough from deep to make you respect him), Wilson has a number of ways he can hurt you offensively.
Wilson is also playing the best basketball of his career. He has posted 3 double-doubles in 5 NCAA Tournament games, and even when he hasn’t shot the ball well, as in a 1-for-8 performance against Miami in the Elite 8, he’s been a huge factor for the Jayhawks in owning the glass, grabbing 54 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament, including 12 against Miami and 14 in the win over Creighton. If Kansas wins Monday night, Wilson’s ability to help on the glass will be an immense reason.
The X Factor, part II: North Carolina’s legs and Armando Bacot’s ankle
The Tar Heels tend to stick with the “Iron Five” (starters Caleb Love, Leaky Black, RJ Davis, Brady Manek and Armando Bacot) as much as possible. Saturday night, the Tar Heels made only one substitution in the second half, and that was at the 5:18 mark, when Puff Johnson played 3 minutes while Bacot dealt with a rolled ankle. In fact, over the course of the entire Duke game, the Tar Heels played a high possession game getting only 13 total minutes from their bench.
Dean Smith made Carolina’s conditioning the stuff of legend. Davis, who played for Smith and worked as a coach with his protege Roy Williams, has maintained that culture. The Tar Heels pride themselves culturally on being the most fit team in America.
But it’s tough to go hard against a great opponent on 2 days’ rest. North Carolina did it against Saint Peter’s in the Elite 8, of course, but they were the more talented team. The Tar Heels didn’t really face fatigue questions against Baylor either, because they beat Marquette so soundly in the first round they were able to rest their starters much of the second half.
Can North Carolina play a high-tempo game against Kansas without resting their starting 5 in the second half? We’ll find out.
Finally, there’s the matter of Bacot’s rolled ankle. The junior never looked comfortable when he re-entered the Duke game Saturday night, and he quickly fouled out. Are there lingering mobility issues? Will a cortisone shot and the fact it’s just “one more game” be enough for Bacot to disregard the pain? Is there any pain? We won’t know until game time, but if Bacot isn’t fully healthy, it ups the ante and the challenge for the Tar Heels.
The Prediction: Kansas 80, North Carolina 73
This has been a special run for North Carolina, and this Tar Heels team will be fondly remembered forever. No matter what happens Monday night, the “Iron Five” will always be the group that sent Coach K home a loser. That’s almost Franklin Street parade worthy.
But the matchup here favors the more talented team, and that’s Kansas. The Jayhawks have a lottery pick and the sport’s best scorer in Agbaji, a Caleb Love neutralizer in Christian Braun, who will also likely be taken in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft, and a future first-rounder in Jalen Wilson on the wing. North Carolina has no guaranteed draft picks, though Love’s play has certainly put him back in the conversation for at least a guaranteed two-way contract.
The Jayhawks have steamrolled their competition to get here and haven’t really been pushed in a game other than their win over Creighton in over a month. They entered the NCAA Tournament as a favorite for a reason and on Monday night at the NCAA Tournament, give me the more talented team, though this Carolina group will go down swinging.