Two celebrated men's college basketball programs will compete for the right to add another banner to the home rafters on Monday night. The No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks and No. 8 seed North Carolina Tar Heels will meet for the NCAA Division I men's basketball national championship at Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, looking to cap a magical run with one more win.
The Jayhawks, who took down Villanova in one national semifinal on Saturday night, will be vying for their fourth NCAA national championship (1952, 1988, 2008), and first since defeating Memphis for the 2008 title. Bill Self & Co. find themselves in Monday night's championship for the first time since losing to Kentucky there in 2012.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are trying to lift their seventh NCAA championship trophy (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, 2017) and first under head coach Hubert Davis. UNC, which will have to turn the page after an emotional victory over hated rival Duke in an epic national semifinal on Saturday night, is attempting to match the 1985 Villanova Wildcats as the lowest seed to win a national championship.
To prepare for Monday night's event, ESPN's team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi identified what to look for in this matchup of blue bloods, and made predictions for which team would come away with the title.
Kansas has played three straight dominant halves in wins over Miami and Villanova. What about the Jayhawks (or who) has impressed you most during this run?
Medcalf: I know it's a cliché, but I think Kansas' poise has been its most impressive trait. I was thinking about that in Saturday night's win against Villanova. In the second half, Jay Wright put together an incredible plan to stall KU's offense and give his short-handed squad a chance. The Jayhawks were on the biggest stage in the entire sport, a 38-19 lead had been cut to single digits and the crowd could sense that it might be watching one of the great comebacks in NCAA tournament history, but it never felt as if the Jayhawks were in any real danger. Kansas responded every time, even when Villanova cut its deficit to six points, and subsequently won by double digits.
And that has been the tone of this team throughout the NCAA tournament. Creighton had its moments in the second round, but KU's offense was rolling. Providence took a late lead and Kansas took it back in the Sweet 16. And Miami had a 35-29 lead at halftime in the Elite Eight, and then Kansas outscored the Hurricanes 47-15 in the second half.
Throughout this tournament, the best teams have been playing on a scale of 1 to 10, but it just seems as if Kansas can reach a Level 15 beyond what any opposing team has been able to counter. The Jayhawks are measured when they're struggling, they remain calm when a team is fighting back and they go for the finish when they're ahead. I think that has been the most impressive element of this team.
Borzello: I just think it's their balance and ability to score efficiently from every area of the floor. In the past three halves in particular, Ochai Agbaji has finally found his rhythm. He was quiet for the first three games of the tournament, including a five-point, 2-for-8 outing against Providence in the Sweet 16. But he woke up in the second half against Miami and has been on a tear since then. Against Villanova, he scored 21 points and made six 3s. He was the reason Kansas made seven 3s in the first 14 minutes against the Wildcats -- after making seven 3s in a game just once in the past month.
But it's not just Agbaji. David McCormack was unstoppable against Villanova, with 25 points down low. Christian Braun, who was incredible earlier in the season, has bought into his role as a perimeter shot-maker and passer. Jalen Wilson has become more consistent in the NCAA tournament. Remy Martin looked like Arizona State Remy Martin in the first three games of the tournament -- he has struggled shooting the ball in the past two games -- but Kansas has more than enough weapons to withstand an off night from one of its top scorers. It's going to be interesting to see which players North Carolina keys on defensively.
Gasaway: The most impressive thing about Kansas in the tournament to me has been that this team has won games in wildly different yet equally powerful ways. The current version of the Jayhawks is the one with the incredible offense that ground up both Miami and Villanova into a fine powder. The three dominant and most recent halves featured a KU offense that's operating at the sport's performance horizon. Bill Self's team has hit 18 3s (on just 33 tries) and rung up 128 points in its past 95 possessions. That's incredible, and the heroes in that stretch have been mostly Agbaji and McCormack from their respective sides of the arc.
Then again it was just a few days ago when this same team was winning with defense. The victory over Providence in particular was a good old-fashioned rock fight. Kansas shot 14% on its 3s and missed 22 of 42 tries inside the arc but won by five. That kind of versatility is impressive. It suggests that the Jayhawks will still be formidable in the title game even if their perimeter shots aren't falling.
Lunardi: When a team is bringing the preseason player of the year in its league off the bench, it has a lot of firepower. One through seven, Kansas now has more ways to beat you than any other team in the country. Throw in the stifling defense we witnessed in the second half of the Miami game and the first half against Villanova and it's not a fair fight. And when the best player, Agbaji, rediscovers his shooting touch, look out.
This is the team I picked to win the national championship back in November, not the one that suffered with chemistry issues and without a healthy Martin for much of the regular season. It was easy to cast the Jayhawks aside after the embarrassing home loss to Kentucky, but the season still had two months to go and Bill Self had plenty of time and plenty of pieces to reassemble.
Kansas would have beaten Villanova in the semifinals even if Wildcats guard Justin Moore had been healthy. The Jayhawks would have beaten any team in this tournament with their play these past two games. One has to think North Carolina will need to be nearly perfect to prevent a Kansas championship.
What would a national championship in his first NCAA tournament say about North Carolina's Hubert Davis?
Borzello: I saw a stat Saturday night that summed up Hubert Davis' coaching performance in the NCAA tournament thus far. The last team to beat UCLA, Duke and Kansas in the same season -- not just in the NCAA tournament but over the course of an entire season -- was Notre Dame in 1973-74, coached by Digger Phelps. Davis has a chance to do that over the course of 10 days.
.@UNC_Basketball has beaten UCLA and Duke and now faces Kansas in the title game.— Stats By STATS (@StatsBySTATS) April 3, 2022
No team has beaten UCLA, Duke and Kansas in the same season (whether in the NCAA Tournament or otherwise) since Digger Phelps' Notre Dame squad did it in 1973-74.
It's been a remarkable turnaround for Davis in his first season at the helm, going from getting blasted by pretty much every good team Carolina faced during the first half of season (and later some not-so-good teams -- e.g., Pittsburgh) to putting up 94 points on Duke in Cameron and going all the way to the national championship game. He has made smart adjustments as the season has progressed and has figured out how to put his four stars in optimal positions to make plays. A national championship is sacred ground for college basketball coaches, and Davis is on the precipice of getting there in Year 1. Incredible, really.
Lunardi: What's best about Hubert Davis is that what you see is what you get. He is genuine, emotional and unafraid to express his feelings in good times and bad. He will be the same person regardless of Monday's outcome, and he will deflect the considerable credit coming his way if the night ends with a net around his neck.
Short term, a title validates the already perfect decision to elevate Davis to replace Roy Williams. Long term, it sets up Carolina even more as a destination program. Who wouldn't want to play for a relatable, unaffected and -- oh, by the way -- national champion of a coach.
Come to think of it, all of those things are true for the Tar Heels win or lose. A loss to Kansas might be crushing in the moment, but in all likelihood is merely a championship delayed for their coach.
Gasaway: It means "Welcome to the club," right? This is a really exclusive group. There are just eight active head coaches who have won a national title: Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, Bill Self, John Calipari, Jay Wright, Tony Bennett and Scott Drew. However unjust it might be, we make a significant distinction between the winning and losing coaches on the first Monday in April. The names set forth above require no further explanation; we know the years they all won their titles and who their star players were. It doesn't work quite the same way, however, for the runners-up. (Though, to be sure, guys like Brad Stevens and Mark Few do seem to be carrying on pretty well under the circumstances.) If Davis captures a title in his first season, it defines his legacy going forward.
Medcalf: I think there would be pros and cons. I had a lot of conversations with Tubby Smith about the value of winning a national title in his first season at Kentucky. It was great after he won and difficult when he hadn't won another title years after that 1998 run. But a win on Monday night would continue to validate Davis' status as Roy Williams' successor. He doesn't need a win to do that, but a victory would elevate him in the eyes of the program's supporters. And it would buy him more time to put his stamp on the program in the years ahead.
There is no blueprint for this. Bill Guthridge was Dean Smith's longtime assistant, and he made two Final Fours in three years. Matt Doherty struggled through a three-year stint. Since 1961, those are the only two coaches other than Smith, Williams and Davis who have had that job. A victory would say, "The Hubert Davis era is here." But I also think the long-term implications of a win would involve more pressure on Davis to repeat this feat and win big every year. That could be a lot for any coach to digest.
Which single player will be most important in the outcome of this game?
Lunardi: It has to be Armando Bacot, or, more specifically, his injured ankle. North Carolina will have its hands full with KU big man David McCormack if Bacot is healthy. If he's limited, which sure seems likely, I'm not sure there is enough length or enough fouls in the Carolina frontcourt to keep McCormack from carving up the lane.
Without a double-double from Bacot, plus his meaningful interior presence, it's darn near impossible for me to find a formula that works for the Tar Heels against the current version of the Jayhawks. He is indispensable in this matchup.
Willis Reed, anyone?
Gasaway: Caleb Love. What an amazing 30 days he's had. At the beginning of that particular time period, the 2022 All-ACC teams were announced. Love didn't make the first team ... or the second or even third team. He was named honorable mention All-ACC. Conversely, now we're talking about a tournament sensation who put his team on his back and erupted for 22 points in one half to end Mike Krzyzewski's coaching career in a national semifinal at the Superdome. Not bad for an honorable mention winner! There should be a rule against saddling any player with the "Kemba Walker in 2011" tag, but let's just say Love has done the most in this tournament to create his own label for future comparisons.
Medcalf: I think it's Ochai Agbaji. After Saturday's win, Bill Self said this team's shooting ability is largely impacted by the way Agbaji plays. And I think he's right. Agbaji was a big reason the Jayhawks made 54% of their 3-point attempts against Villanova on Saturday. I think he will be the best player on the floor on Monday night. And we don't talk about multiple players in national championship games. Years later, we talk about the one player who separated himself from the rest in the most pivotal moment of the season. And I think Agbaji will be that for Kansas. If he's rolling, then Kansas could do to North Carolina what it has done to every other team that stood in its way during this NCAA tournament and secure Self's second national championship.
Borzello: As it's been since he got to Chapel Hill nearly two years ago, the answer is Caleb Love. I tweeted during the ACC tournament that Caleb Love being Good Caleb Love took Carolina to a new level, as evidenced by the following stat: During the regular season, the Tar Heels beat four NCAA tournament teams. Love had at least 20 points in all four of those games. He hit that threshold against power-conference teams three times the rest of the season.
He has taken his game up a notch in the NCAA tournament, averaging 20.0 points and putting the Tar Heels on his back at times. Thirty points against UCLA in the Sweet 16, 28 points against Duke in the Final Four -- including 22 in the second half, and the biggest shot of the game and the final six points for Carolina. Kansas has a terrific defensive guard in Dajuan Harris Jr., but Love is playing at an extremely high level right now and will need to continue to perform for Carolina to win.
Who will win, and why?
Medcalf: I think these two teams are a perfect match for one another, and they have a similar philosophy. They both have one traditional big and then they let the other players on the floor -- a combination of versatile guards and forwards -- float and play in a free-flowing style. North Carolina (18th) and Kansas (sixth) are top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency.
And this is not always the case in the national championship, but you could make a strong case that Monday's matchup will pair the two best teams in college basketball over the past month. North Carolina has found ways to keep games close and just outlast its opponents in the final minutes of a game. Baylor bounced back from a gigantic deficit, but UNC beat the Bears in overtime. The Tar Heels did the same thing down the stretch against Duke.
The challenge is that Kansas hasn't allowed any team to control the final chapter of a game in the NCAA tournament. And I don't believe the Jayhawks will do that here. I think this game will be tight until the final 10 minutes. And then, the Jayhawks will beat UNC at its own game and close the show with an offensive performance that yields another national title for Bill Self and Kansas.
Medcalf score prediction: Kansas 84, North Carolina 80
Borzello: I find it really hard to go against Carolina the way the Tar Heels are playing ... but I'm going to, even though I don't feel really great about it. But there are a few reasons. One, the pure emotion of Saturday night's game. The Tar Heels gave it everything they had in the win over Duke, and they deservedly celebrated at the final buzzer in comparable fashion. Can Carolina put that game in the rearview mirror and get back to that level for Kansas? I get that it's a national championship game, but still, Saturday night took a lot out of the Tar Heels, physically and emotionally.
The second thing is Bacot's injury. He's obviously going to play, but will he be 100 percent? We've seen what McCormack is capable of on the interior, and Bacot needs to win that matchup. Can he win it -- in terms of points and rebounds but also just staying on the floor and out of foul trouble -- if he's not at full strength?
My big concern for Kansas is Carolina's four stars are playing at an unbelievable level right now. The quartet of Love, R.J. Davis, Brady Manek and Bacot is capable of putting up 85 points on its own on any given night. The Jayhawks have plenty of weapons, but they're going to need to be firing on all cylinders -- as they have in the past three halves -- come Monday night. I think Self will have something up his sleeve defensively, and I think Kansas will cut down the nets.
Borzello score prediction: Kansas 83, North Carolina 81
Gasaway: Kansas wins because it has that "Villanova in 2018" look. Yes, the Wildcats acquired that mystique four years ago in part by clubbing the Jayhawks in a national semifinal. Now that wheel has turned. KU arrives at the title game having played three halves of very nearly ideal basketball. Before that, Kansas looked merely mortal yet still eliminated the Big East regular-season champions. When the Jayhawks shoot the lights out they win, and when they don't they win anyway. Also KU has held its tournament opponents to 38% shooting inside the arc. This is a tough group, but I do wish one additional note recorded for posterity. UNC looked to be in some degree of at least momentary jeopardy in three of its five wins (Baylor, UCLA and Duke), and the Tar Heels are still here. Kansas will have to bring its A-game to succeed where the Bears, Bruins and Blue Devils failed.
Gasaway score prediction: Kansas 81, North Carolina 78
Lunardi: Part of me thinks this game is already over. Where were the Jayhawks when North Carolina was expending all that energy upsetting archrival Duke? Lounging at the hotel, no doubt, probably eating pizza with their feet up and taking treatment as needed.
Yes, the Tar Heels are young guys who specialize in being resilient. They are also human with the natural ability to rise up to the enormous challenge of beating Coach K for the second time in a month and then letting down once the deed is done.
If there was one more day of rest and recovery, one more day's distance from the late Superdome finish, one more day to deprogram the weeklong buildup to Duke, I'd feel a lot better about Carolina's chances. But that extra day doesn't exist. We saw a similar impact last year when Gonzaga had the late overtime thriller against UCLA and then got rocked in the opening minutes against Baylor less than 48 hours later.
Baylor was the better team that night, no matter how much Gonzaga kept fighting. And Kansas will be the better team against Carolina, no matter how much the Tar Heels try to will away the inevitable.
North Carolina won its piece of immortality against Duke. The Jayhawks are about to get theirs.
Lunardi score prediction: Kansas 84, North Carolina 72