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Mike Lopresti | | April 4, 2022

North Carolina and Kansas — The two-year journeys that led them to this national championship game

Full final 3:32 in UNC-Duke Final Four instant classic

NEW ORLEANS — Kansas vs. North Carolina. How did we get here? Two sagging blue bloods blasted out of the last NCAA tournament by a combined 57 points, and now 12 months later, one will be the national champion, fully restored to the penthouse of college basketball.

March 2020 . . .

North Carolina has had an awful season, 14-19 overall, tied for last in the ACC. Percentage-wise, it is the second-worst Tar Heels record in 125 years. “First time in my life, I felt sort of hopeless,” Roy Williams says after the last defeat.

Meanwhile, Kansas has had a glorious year, ranked No. 1 with a 28-3 record. ”I thought that was probably as prepared a team to do well in the tournament as any we’ve had,” Bill Self would say later.

But the NCAA tournament never comes. The virus shuts down the game. With the exception of Dayton and its once-in-a-generation 29-2 Flyers, no team in the nation has more cause to wonder what might have been than the Jayhawks.

“That team was just dominant," Christian Braun said. "We thought we were the best team walking into every single gym. It did not matter where we were going. Looking back on it you don’t get an opportunity like that very often with that good of a team.”

March 2021 . . .

There is an NCAA tournament in Indianapolis, and both North Carolina and Kansas are there. But not for long. Wisconsin humbles the Tar Heels by 23 points in a dreary first-round game. Two weeks later, Williams will suddenly announce his retirement. “For me, it was a day of sadness,” then-assistant Hubert Davis, said. “I didn’t want him to go.”

Kansas, plagued by COVID positives, makes it to the second round but then is blown away by USC 85-51. The 157th NCAA tournament game in program history is also its worst defeat ever. “People keep saying the 2020 team that got canceled, but you can’t do anything about that,” Braun said. “But we could do something about losing to USC by how much we lost by. As a competitor, that one stung more. And after that, we had people who didn’t think we could get it done.”

Added Dajuan Harris, “We took one week off and then got right back into it. Everyone got better. We had something on our chest.”

April 2022. . .

The Final Four begins with two compelling questions, We now know the answer to one. We know how it ends for Mike Krzyzewski.

Next, who wins? It has come to this in New Orleans: Two of the three all-time winningest programs, one led by a coach already in the Hall of Fame, the other in the first season of his career.

The crowd Monday night will rise into the darkness of the upper sections of the Caesars Superdome. There is no attendance limitation. Krzyzewski is gone. But North Carolina and Kansas are back from two years that in many ways were ordeals. All that represents change from 2021.

North Carolina is here with a different member of the Tar Heel family in charge. Davis was a Carolina player and then an assistant and now the head coach. He has paid more than his share of dues to get to Monday night. When he was considering whether to call a timeout in the final minute against Duke Saturday, his mind went back to a similar situation he faced while coaching the North Carolina junior varsity team against a prep school.

INSTANT CLASSIC: UNC outlasts Duke to clinch spot in title game | Coach K's unmatched legacy

Monday night, he could become only the second man ever to win a national championship his first season as a head coach, joining Michigan Steve Fisher of 33 years ago. It has been a dizzying ride. “I haven’t had time to reflect and think,” he said Sunday. “It’s always been next game, next practice, next recruit, next media event.”

Davis has tried to flip more levers in his first season than an astronaut. To build bridges, he ordered his players to drop by his office at least three times a week during the summer. They could talk about anything but basketball. He put up a picture of the Superdome before the first practice to make sure his guys remembered the mission, and told them their parents might as well buy tickets to New Orleans for the Final Four in early April.

The Tar Heels were bemused at first but eventually become believers, even through a shaky early season that included losses of 17 points to Tennessee, 29 to Kentucky, 28 to Miami, 22 to Wake Forest and 20 to Duke. Maybe Davis should have told the parents to buy tickets to New York for the NIT. But a midnight team meeting after the Wake Forest shellacking led to a reboot, and look where they are now.

“At some points, I don’t know if it was belief or if it was just us delusional,” Armando Bacot said. “At every point of the season, we knew if we came together as a team that we could get to the championship. And that’s what we did.”

Davis has always been deeply aware of answering to the aura of the men he followed, from Dean Smith to Bill Guthridge to Williams, who is in the stands of nearly every Carolina game as sort of national champion emeritus.

“I don’t know if it’s living a dream. I’m just overwhelmed with thankfulness,” Davis said. “I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. They didn’t even offer me a scholarship until 11:59 with 59 seconds on the clock. And they gave me a chance and gave me an opportunity. When you look back, everything significant in my life has happened because they’ve given me a chance to be a part of this program.”

What of Kansas? The echo from the missed chance in 2020 has followed the Jayhawks through the two years, and made this ride more special.

“I think it just replicates how we are now and how this team moves and our confidence on this team,” Ochai Agbaji said Sunday. “That’s why I keep saying that we’re doing it for them, because we just have that same feeling.”

Self can sense that as well. “I think it does have added value to me and the players because there’s no guarantees in this tournament,” he said. “And I think that even though we haven’t really talked about it like this, these guys really hadn’t tasted what the NCAA tournament is all about.”

They have now.

Bill Self praises David McCormack's 'dominant' performance in Final Four win

With Krzyzewski and Williams now gone, Self moves a notch higher on the pecking order of active coaching giants. But in such company, one championship — from 14 years ago — seems a tad pale. He knows it, too.

“At most places winning one national championship would be quite an accomplishment, I think as many good teams as we’ve had, one’s not enough,” he said Sunday. “I don’t think that I personally feel pressure that we have to win. But I do know that when you have a chance to coach at a place where you have an opportunity to be in the game most years, you need to take advantage of that more than we have.”

In other words, as Braun said, “It’s time . . . He’s the GOAT in our eyes.”

There is another way these two teams are reminders of a changing landscape in college basketball: They are conspicuous because of what they haven’t changed. The rosters Monday night will not be stocked with a wave of acquisitions from the transfer portal. The game will mostly be played by those with roots in these programs.

That means Leaky Black will lead North Carolina as a fourth-year Tar Heel. Bacot is in his third year and scorers Caleb Love and R.J. Davis are in their second. “I feel like I’ve been committed my whole life,” Black said Sunday. “I think I committed the first or second game my sophomore year. It’s been a long time coming. That’s why every game I’m breaking down crying. I can’t remember the last time I cried this much.”

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The Kansas starting lineup has spent a combined 16 seasons as Jayhawks. Nothing wrong at all with transfers or freshmen, Self mentioned, but “there’s something special about being able to see a player grow up right in front of your eyes. And I think that we actually have this here.”

Such time investment in a program makes Monday even more significant. Bacot, for example, injured his ankle Saturday night and was walking gingerly Sunday. But he’s been at North Carolina too long to miss this. “No chance I’m not playing,” he said. “My right leg would have to be cut off not to play.”

'No chance' bum ankle will keep Armando Bacot out of national championship

Like all the Jayhawk veterans Braun remembers the doubt heaped upon the program after the USC mashing last March. And this week they have watched as North Carolina-Duke got nearly all the buzz. How can the school with the most all-time wins be second on the marquee?

“We’re Kansas so we’re not underdogs obviously, but we weren’t talked about all week. We weren’t talked about as much as they were in recruiting, either” Braun said. “But we’re competitive people, too.

“This whole year has been kind of our little journey, our time to tell people that, hey, we’re here.”

They are two programs who have been at the top long enough to have crossed paths often, When Kansas won its first national championship in 1952, a Jayhawk reserve was Dean Smith, who would become an icon at North Carolina. When the Tar Heels won their first title in 1957 — in three overtimes — the team they beat was Kansas with Wilt Chamberlain.

Roy Williams would make his name at Kansas, but win his three titles at North Carolina. In his first Kansas Final Four game as a coach in 1991, the opponent the Jayhawks beat 79-73 was North Carolina. Smith picked up two technical and was ejected in the final minute. The Tar Heels lost despite 25 points that day from Hubert Davis.

Davis said on Sunday that for the longest time he watched a tape of that game at least once every year. “It would make me cry,” he said. “Every time I watched it I would think it was going to turn out differently.”

Monday will be the fifth time Kansas and North Carolina have meet in the Final Four — the most of any matchup. Together, the programs know all about winning championship games, with nine titles between them. They know all about losing them, too. The only schools with more title games defeats than North Carolina’s five are Duke and Kansas with six.

It is, then a crossroads for two coaches. If Kansas wins, Self solidifies his place among the coaching greats of his era, just when new voices of leadership are needed with Krzyzewski and Williams gone. If it’s North Carolina, the No. 8 seed Tar Heels would match the famous 1985 Villanova team as the lowest seed ever to be national champion. And Hubert Davis would be legend at North Carolina, before he has even had time to think about being the coach.

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