National championship game features iconic programs vying to renewed history


AP Photo/Matt Rourke

North Carolina’s Justin McKoy goes up during practice for the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament in Philadelphia on Thursday, March 24.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

After a months-long regular season and grueling 64-team national tournament, Monday night will finally feature the culmination of the college basketball season — the National Championship Game.

The two teams playing for the national title are a couple of familiar faces — the Kansas Jayhawks and North Carolina Tar Heels. While the two Blue Bloods have been on the national stage before, their paths to New Orleans this season have been vastly different.

Kansas has been a force to be reckoned with all season long. Led by leading scorer senior guard Ochai Agbaji, the Jayhawks have flown through a treacherous Big 12 schedule and have won 10 consecutive contests heading into Monday night.

Agbaji has been one of the nation’s best players this season, and he and his team have shown no signs of slowing down. The Jayhawks have knocked off Creighton, Providence, Miami and Villanova in the tournament, with the latter two victories coming in dominant fashion. The Jayhawks have validated their standing as a No. 1 seed, and are favored to take home their fourth national title.

On the other side, the No. 8 seed North Carolina has taken a more indirect route to New Orleans. Coming out of the ACC, the Tar Heels suffered some head-scratching losses during the regular season, including one on their home court to Pitt. But North Carolina knocked off Duke on the road to end the regular season prior to advancing to the ACC Championship Game, where they lost to Virginia Tech.

This late-season surge was enough to propel the Tar Heels to the Final Four. They got there by once again knocking off their archrivals, the Blue Devils, in an instant classic Elite Eight game. A late 3-pointer from Caleb Love was a dagger in a UNC win that the fanbase will remember for a lifetime.

Traditionally near the top of the rankings, first-year coach Hubert Davis’ squad never quite reached national prominence during the regular season, but North Carolina has peaked at the right time and is now one win away from its second national title in six years.

Despite North Carolina’s impressive streak to get to this point, Kansas has the upper hand heading into the title game. Its body of work throughout the entire season and postseason has been nearly flawless, as Bill Self’s team was able to rebound after losses and string together wins when it really mattered.

If North Carolina is to win on Monday night, it will likely be due in large part to their “big three” — senior forward Brady Manek, sophomore guard Caleb Love and junior forward Armando Bacot. In their Final Four matchup against Duke, the three combined to score 53 of UNC’s 81 points, along with Bacot registering 21 rebounds individually.

The trio can score at all three levels, and with Bacot’s command of the glass, the Tar Heels are a difficult matchup for anyone.

But Kansas’ domination of a talented Villanova team showed just how good the Jayhawks can be.

Kansas was excellent from beyond the arc against Villanova, shooting an eye-popping 54% from deep with much of that production coming in part to Agbaji, who was 6 for 7. In the paint, senior forward David McCormack was 10 for 12 from the field, racking up a team-leading 25 points to help power Kansas past the Big East champion Wildcats.

Between McCormack, Agbaji and the rest of the powerful Jayhawk offense, the Tar Heels will need to play one of their best defensive games of the season to emerge from Monday night’s game as national champions.

With that being said, the trio that North Carolina presents can certainly give Kansas problems if they are on. They have been thus far in the NCAA Tournament — it’s just a matter of whether they can do it against a team that no one has had an answer for thus far in March.

The game will take place Monday with tipoff at 9:20 p.m. on TBS.