Kansas vs. North Carolina could be incredible.
Don't go automatically thinking Monday night's national title game will falter in the aftermath of the saga of Saturday night's headliner. Duke is gone but that hardly takes away from the blue blood and nostalgic appeal that this 2022 men's NCAA Tournament is concluding with.
Consider: North Carolina has proven for five consecutive games — hello, is anyone not already donning Carolina blue officially believing in this team yet? — that it is as good as any team in the sport. Meantime, Kansas has the No. 1 seed, the only one of the top-liners to make it to the Final Four. The Jayhawks resisted shorthanded Villanova's push and are now favored to win the national title by four points. If it happens, it would be the program's fourth NCAA Tournament crown.
These schools are quite familiar with each other, even if the teams are not. It's that history — a rich one, with many people intertwining two royal basketball houses — that makes for a fantastic stage-setter down here in the Big Easy.
This is the fifth matchup on a Final Four/title-game stage between these two, making UNC vs. KU the most common clash in the history of the Final Four. It began in 1957, when the Final Four's only three-overtime game was settled 57-56 in favor of undefeated, 32-0 North Carolina, which beat a Kansas team featuring a lanky player named Wilt.
- Kansas beat UNC in the 1991 national semis
- Carolina returned the favor winning against KU in the '93 semis
- The Jayhawks defeated the Tar Heels in the Final Four in 2008, when all four No. 1 seeds made it
Here we are being rewarded with the first title-game matchup between the schools that rank first (Kansas) and third (Carolina) in all-time victories. Hey, you get an all-blue blood Final Four, you'll have some terrific historical context no matter who pokes through to the title game. It's also the seventh meeting between the Jayhawks and Heels in the tournament, tied for second-most in history.
The connections run even deeper between the pair. Remember that coach at Carolina once up a time, Dean Smith? Kansas graduate. He was on the team that won the national title in 1952. Later in life, they say Smith did well for himself; he retired with 879 wins (most ever when he stepped away) and two national titles with the Tar Heels. Smith is regarded as the greatest coach in North Carolina history.
And yet, is he the best? Because for all the talk of Coach K's farewell season, the final game of this season is in fact a Roy Williams special. You could argue Williams, not Smith, is the best coach in UNC history. He won three national titles and 485 games, amounting to a .748 win percentage. Prior to that, of course, Williams was the steward of a Kansas program that dominated in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Williams won 418 games across 15 seasons with Kansas. He was in the building on Saturday to gleefully cheer on Carolina's soul-squishing defeat against Duke. Safe to bet the camera will find him early and often on Monday night.
Kansas-UNC is now, in a charming way, doubling as an unofficial one-year-later send-off to ol' Roy. How about that?
There's more. Another former coach, Larry Brown, who guided Kansas to the 1988 Danny and the Miracles title, played for Smith in the 1960s at UNC. Perhaps he can find a seat close to Williams. And with Bill Self and Hubert Davis meeting in this moment, it marks the first time two coaches are squaring off in a national championship game as successors of the same person; Self replaced Williams at Kansas, Davis the same at Carolina.
If you want one more, sure, why not: North Carolina assistant coach Brad Frederick is the son of a formative and important figure in Kansas history, its late athletic director, Bob Frederick.
Self knows this game has a chance to be great because of who's on the other side. There's an increase in the specialness factor here.
"I think no matter who we'll be playing tonight, it would be incredibly special, because both teams are as blue as you can get when you talk about blue bloods," he said. "But to play a Carolina program that's intertwined with Kansas history, in large part because Coach Smith played at Kansas and won a national championship in '52 and then he goes on and is thought to be as good a basketball coach that's ever coached the sport over a period of time. So, I think that's special. Also with Coach Williams heading our program for 15 years and doing a magnificent job there and then going back to his alma mater and winning three national championships, I think that certainly adds to the interest. So I'm very proud to be a part of this game."
For Kansas, it's 10th national title game. North Carolina's back here for the 12th time (second ever to UCLA's 13). UNC is 2-0 in title games in the Superdome, winning in 1982 and 1993. There continues to be speculation about Michael Jordan showing up. To the best of anyone's knowledge, he wasn't here Saturday. But he did show in 2017 to see UNC beat Gonzaga in the title game.
And this is the 40-year anniversary of his game-winner against Georgetown, which is the genesis of Jordan's origin story.
"I don't just want him to show up. I'd like him to play," Davis joked on Sunday.
Thankfully for North Carolina, Armando Bacot will be playing. The man who has 30 double-doubles this season is set to start after briefly leaving with a lower leg injury vs. Duke. Not only will Bacot be in uniform, here's what he told reporters Sunday: "My right leg would have to be cut off for me not to play."
That rules. This matchup does as well. North Carolina is trying to do something that hasn't been matched since the first 64-team field in 1985: win the whole thing as a No. 8 seed.
The school that did that, of course, is the one Kansas beat on Saturday to get here, Villanova.
This Carolina team in no way resembles Rollie Massimino's ragtag group that pulled off one of the all-time upsets in American sports history. If UNC beats Kansas on Monday night, the story will be threefold: Davis winning in his first season, UNC doing this as a No. 8 seed, and beating Kansas as the cherry-on-top after the forever win over Duke two nights prior.
Davis knows a thing about agonizing losses on a Final Four stage, and that's where we dive even deeper into how these two epic programs feel more and more interchangeable. Davis revealed Sunday that he built in a tortuous ritual for himself every year in an earlier part of his life: he watched the entire 1991 national semifinal loss he suffered as a player to Kansas.
"That was the toughest loss that I've ever experienced in my entire life," he said. "It would make me cry. And I was hoping that — it's interesting, every time that I watched it, I would think it's going to turn out differently."
The rite of passage stopped in 2017, when Davis was an assistant on the title-winning UNC squad that beat Gonzaga in Glendale, Arizona. A cleansing of the basketball soul. Now he gets a chance for any leftover redemption, though for Davis this is an opportunity for his players. He insists this is now their moment, their chance at something he didn't capture when he was wearing a UNC uniform.
"That was the best place, personally, that I had ever experienced," Davis said. "I told [my players], I played 12 years in the NBA and that was my finest as a basketball player, finest moment, just being part of the Final Four. I was trying to convey to them how special it is to be here. Now that they're being able to experience it is great."
For all the NCAA Tournament history between the two, these aren't frequent foes. Usually it's this tournament that forces them together. UNC holds a 6-5 edge all time over Kansas, with the Jayhawks winners of the past three (all coming in the NCAAs.)
There's just a little too much familiarity going on here to think this game can't be a great one. Kansas rates as the better team, North Carolina screams into this matchup as the more compelling story. For almost three weeks, it felt like Duke was fated to get here with Mike Krzyzewski. Now that it's off the table, there's an airiness here that could give way to a loose game with a lot of possessions and a bunch of points.
History awaits. Either Self becomes the first Kansas coach to win multiple titles, or Davis becomes the first coach in history to win a national title in a first full season as a head coach — as a No. 8 seed, to boot.
Come on, now. It's Kansas. It's Carolina. It's the national championship. It's New Orleans. These games in this city have developed a habit of being classics. Hopefully that voodoo is in the building once more Monday evening.