College basketball's 2021-22 national champion will be crowned on Monday night when the Final Four comes to a conclusion with a possible all-time national championship game taking place in New Orleans with No. 1 seed Kansas vs. No. 8 seed North Carolina. The Jayhawks enter with confidence after a wire-to-wire 16-point win against No. 2 seed Villanova in one national semifinal, while the Tar Heels advanced thanks to an epic 81-77 win against No. 2 seed Duke, sending Mike Krzyzewski and the rival Blue Devils home in the first-ever NCAA Tournament meeting between the programs.
The differences in how the two games played out is a big part of setting the stage for Monday night. By the time the ball is tipped willfrom an emotionally exhausting win in the late game on Saturday? If not, Kansas may have an edge in that department not only playing in the early game but getting the result of a bench-clearing blowout.
But you can't focus on something as basic as rest when you have two programs who mean so much to the sport of college basketball. "Who's tired" is a storyline that falls flat of honoring these two titans of the sport before they class on the biggest stage.
North Carolina and Duke have(UNC with six, Kansas with three) and squared off in the Final Four four times, most recently in 2008 and as far back as 1957, when North Carolina beat Wilt Chamberlain and the Jayhawks 54-53 in triple overtime to win the national championship. The winner of the Final Four meetings in 2008 (Kansas) and 1993 (North Carolina) also claimed the title that season.
So here we go, at the conclusion of a wild tournament that has delivered in almost every round, with two iconic brands represented by teams playing an extremely high level.
Let's get into storylines to watch on Monday night:
Kansas going for the elusive fourth championship
How has the winningest program in Division I men's basketball history only won three NCAA Tournament titles? Bill Self snapped a painful 20-year title drought in 2008, his fifth year on the job, to move the iconic program into the three-championship club. But absence of another championship under Self has been an oddity bordering on anomaly when you consider he has more often than not brought a team into March that has all the qualities of a national title contender.
In the 14 seasons since Kansas' last national championship, Kansas has been a top-four team in the final AP Top 25 poll — released prior to the NCAA Tournament — eight times, and in seven of the last 13 tournaments the Jayhawks have received a 1-seed on Selection Sunday.
In total, Bill Self has led Kansas to the Elite Eight in six of the last 13 NCAA Tournaments and three of those teams continued on the Final Four, including the 2012 team that was a national runner-up to Kentucky in New Orleans. The Jayhawks have been a highly-ranked team, received top seeds in the bracket and made deep runs in the tournament, basically checking all the boxes of a perennial title contender. At some point, you figure Self and the Jayhawks are going to break through with another title, right?
As Kansas has continued to advance, there has been the discussion of what could have been in 2020, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That was one of those Jayhawks teams ranked No. 1 in the country and if there was a Selection Sunday they would have received a No. 1 seed. Not just a title contender, the 2020 Jayhawks may have been the national championship favorite heading into the tournament. Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack, stars of Saturday's win against Villanova, were sophomores on that team and Christian Braun was a freshman. For a program that was making a trend of tough tournament exits — the 2016, 2017 and 2018 tournaments all had a No. 1 seed Jayhawks team losing in the Elite Eight — the cancellation of the 2020 tournament was just another gut-wrenching defeat in March. Now this year's team has a chance to deliver that elusive fourth national championship, flipping the narrative of how Kansas performs in the tournament and moving the program up the list into more exclusive, and familiar, company for one of the game's true blue bloods.
UNC looking to match No. 8 seed history
Since seeding began in 1979, no team from a seed line lower than No. 8 has ever made the national championship game. North Carolina is fifth No. 8 seed to reach the title game, and looking to become just the second to win it all. Currently the 1985 Villanova Wildcats are the only No. 8 seed to win a national championship, and they lead the list of lowest seeds to win the NCAA Tournament with a No. 7 seed UConn in 2014, a No. 6 seed NC State in 1983 and a No. 6 seed Kansas in 1988. Defeating Kansas on Monday night would add the Tar Heels to that unique piece of NCAA Tournament history as the lowest seed to ever win it all, though suggesting this program, or even this team, has "shocked the world" in doing so would be misguided.
North Carolina may carry an 8-seed in the bracket, but it's form over the last month has been among the best in the country. Ever since a home loss to Pitt that brought real damage to the Tar Heels' NCAA Tournament resume, North Carolina has won 11 of 12 games including two wins against Duke and victories against Baylor and UCLA, all in road or neutral court settings. If the college basketball season started on Feb. 19, the selection committee would assign North Carolina to be a No. 8 seed. But the NCAA Tournament takes the entire body of work into account, so this team that has been playing more like a No. 2 seed for more than month — a notion supported by its wins against a No. 1, a No. 2 and a No. 4 in this tournament — has a chance to make some history thanks to that low seed ranking.
Battle of the bigs could determine the outcome
Both of these teams like to run, both of these teams have excellent offenses and a couple three-point shooters that can flip a game with a hot hand. But the battle could determine who has the edge in a close game might be who wins down low between Kansas senior David McCormack and North Carolina junior Armando Bacot.
Bacot, a first team All-ACC player and, continued his double-double tear with 11 points and 21 rebounds in the win over Duke. He's one of the best rebounders in the country and this year has become an even more important part of how North Carolina runs its halfcourt offense. He also went down with an apparent ankle injury late in the second half against Duke, though he did return to the game. The news on Sunday was that X-rays were negative and recovery was going well enough to expect him to be full go on Monday night, but it's something to watch as the bigs start to bang.
McCormack has been, at times, Kansas' best player, though that's a title that gets passed around a lot on a versatile lineup with several capable contributors. Bill Self identified the senior as the go-to guy early against a Villanova team lacking in size down low, and McCormack responded with a career-high 25 points on 10-of-12 shooting with nine rebounds. Both the Villanova win and the Big 12 Tournament championship game victory against Texas Tech have featured a performance from McCormack that has him utilizing his 6-foot-10, 250-pound size to establish advantages for positioning in the paint. Bacot, listed at 6-10 and 240 pounds, is able to meet force with force down low. It's going to be a possession-by-possession battle, and whoever wins more often is going to give their team a major edge in the matchup.
2022 NCAA Tournament championship game
- (8) North Carolina vs. (1) Kansas -- 9:20 p.m. on TBS (March Madness Live)