NEW ORLEANS – The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament two years ago due to COVID-19 didn't make Kansas special. Everyone dealt with the loss of March Madness in their own way. Before the virus swept over the country and the world, it shuttered the Big Dance. Basketball lives were shattered. Psyches were dealt a blow. The game was brought to its knees.
Except that the 2019-2020 Jayhawks were special. Really special.
"We had the best big-man defensive player in the country," KU coach Bill Self recalled Sunday. "We had the best guard defensive player in the country and we had a second-team All-American on top of that. So that was tough."
Those Jayhawks of two years ago were ranked No. 1, won the Big 12 by two games, went 28-3 and were the widely assumed the. When COVID-19 hit, they had won 16 in a row.
"I know what we would have done that year …," post David McCormack said the day before Kansas plays in the national championship game – this time against North Carolina – for the first time in a decade. "I think we would have went all the way."
There's no way of knowing for sure, of course. What we are left with is computer projections and broken dreams. Of course, KU was destined to get back to the tournament. That's a given. But how would it have done with that forever team that included Self's self-ascribed big-man defender (rim protector Udoka Azubuike), national defensive player of the year (guard Marcus Garrett) and that second-team All-American (Devon Dotson). All three played in the NBA.
"We knew going into every game we were going to win," said guard Christian Braun, a freshman in 2020.
"It was probably, maybe our most equipped team to go deep in the tournament," Self said.
That statement comes from a man who has taken the Jayhawks to 19 NCAA Tournaments, including five Final Fours. McCormack is one of eight Jayhawks left over from that 2020 team. Six of them are now starters or in the main rotation on the current team that is still left wondering what would have happened had the pandemic not struck.
"There's always that what-if factor after that 2020 season," said star guard Ochai Agbaji, a sophomore on that team, "especially after the run that we had to close that season. [That] was unbelievable. That's why I keep saying that we're doing it for them because we just have the same feeling."
These Jayhawks are also a No. 1 seed but were never ranked No. 1 at any point in the season. A late January loss at home to Kentucky exposed Kansas and raised doubts. It would be hard to project that team would be anywhere near a national championship.
The Jayhawks are 16-3 since having lost three times on the road in the Big 12. For some still inexplicable reason, KU started playing better defense about the time of the Big 12 Tournament last month. That carried over Saturday night against Villanova, which shot 39%. In the five tournament games, opponents have shot 35% against KU, the lowest figure of any tournament team.
A subplot has developed, that on Monday night Kansas can "avenge" that 2020 hole in their championship chases. This team is not as good as the one two years ago but has something those Jayhawks didn't – a bracket to play in. A win-one-for-departed mentality exists.
"That's why I keep saying that we're doing it for them because we just have the same feeling," Agbaji said.
"We were playing so well defensively," said sixth-year senior Mitch Lightfoot of 2020. "We had shooters all around. So many pieces that team had. It's kind of hard but I really think it's going to be hard for a team like that to be replicated."
One of the few outsiders from that 2020 team is Arizona State transfer Remy Martin. He came to Kansas in the offseason having averaged 19 points in consecutive seasons. When COVID-19 shut down ASU's season in 2020, the Sun Devils were poised to go to three straight NCAA Tournaments for the first time since the 1960s.
Martin played his last Arizona State season in 2020-2021 before no or few fans. The senior guard is almost personally responsible for one of Bill Self's 16 home losses in his 19 seasons. In 2017, Martin scored 21 in the Sun Devils' 95-85 win at Allen Fieldhouse. Arizona State followed up a year later winning at home against Kansas.
Also, the Jayhawks probably wouldn't be here without his 11.7 points and 4.4 assist-to-turnover ratio since March 11.
"We might as well give it all that we got," Martin said. "It is the last game. Everybody is going to be watching. This is the moment that we have all prepared for."
The epic, emotional end of Mike Krzyzewski's career is still overshadowing Monday's championship game matchup. This is North Carolina-Kansas for gosh sakes. If Carolina wins it would tie 1985 Villanova for the lowest-seeded team (No. 8) ever to win a title. Nova's upset of Georgetown 37 years ago is considered one of the biggest in sports.
A Carolina win Monday would not have the same feel. Villanova won that year during the nascent years of the Big East. This is basketball royalty facing off. The retired Roy Williams has coached both teams. The programs are linked at the hip going back to Dean Smith who played at KU and coached at Carolina. Brad Frederick, son of former KU AD Bob Frederick, is on Carolina's bench as an assistant.
The pressure will be ratcheted up tremendously for the loser. Both schools consider championships a birthright. Kansas last played for one in 2012, losing to Kentucky here. Williams delivered the Tar Heels last championship in 2017.
Self is chasing his second national title, his first since 2008. That's why the chance that COVID-19 slapped away from the Jayhawks two years ago makes the longing a bit more intense.
"At most places winning one national championship would be quite an accomplishment," KU's coach said. "I think as many good teams as we've had, one's not enough."