Imagine my surprise when I learned there’s one more game to go in the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. From What I could tell through all of the hyperventilating and hysteria and berserk chatter about “a game for the ages,” I thought the season had ended – and the world had ended – with North Carolina’s upset victory over Duke in Saturday’s semifinal. Nothing else mattered. Everybody leave Bourbon Street and go home to your families.
But indeed there will be more ball, with Kansas (33-6) trying to melt the streaking blue comet that is North Carolina (29-9.) Both teams are rolling way down yonder in New Orleans. Kansas has won 10 in a row. Carolina has conquered 17 of its last 20 opponents.
In addition to the championship game pitting two historically profound college-basketball franchises, the NCAA loves these teams. If the Tar Heels or Jayhawks are investigated for additional improprieties, we can expect Missouri to be severely punished by NCAA law enforcement.
The game-day skinny …
The Betting Line: Kansas by four, though the line has stretched to 3.4 points depending on where you look and when you check. The late money is pouring in on UNC, probably because of the bandwagon factor and the afterglow of the Tar Heels’ elimination of the Duke empire.
Information: UNC has covered the spread in all five of its NCAA Tournament victories leading into the title game … KU has is 7-3 against the spread in its 10-game win streak … Kansas is 6-2 straight-up and 5-3 ATS this season when favored by fewer than five points. … the over-under total for this game set at 151, but 22 of the last 38 games involving North Carolina have hit the over – and 23 of 39 games involving Kansas have gone over.
The Overview. Predictable (if true) narratives will be used in the making of this section. Consider yourselves warned. But the storylines break down this way:
1) Kansas coach Bill Self is a man under pressure. He’s led KU to 18 NCAA Tournament appearances since succeeding Roy Williams in 2002-2003, this is his fourth Final Four, and this will be his third title-game shot. But Self has just a single national championship to his name – and that came way back in 2008. Since Self hung his championship banner four other programs – North Carolina, Duke, Villanova and Connecticut – have won two NCAA championships.
Since winning that natty, Kansas has hit 30-plus wins eight times, going 413-89 overall over the 14 seasons. But trouble has found the Jayhawks in too many tournaments – including upset losses to Bradley, Bucknell, and Northern Iowa.
“At most places, winning one national championship would be quite an accomplishment,” Self said in his news conference on Sunday. “I think as many good teams as we’ve had, one’s not enough.”
2) With all of the heat on Kansas, North Carolina has nothing to lose. The Tar Heels can continue to play without a burden on their backs. They were considered a tournament bubble team until knocking off Duke and Coach K in his final home game (March 5.) And head coach Hubert Davis is in the perfect position: first-year coach, beloved UNC legend, totally has exceeded expectations, and has taken the Tar Heels to a place that no one outside of Chapel Hill thought they would be.
3) This championship game matches two true blue-blood programs. Dr. James Naismith, Phog Allen, Dean Smith, Larry Brown, Roy Williams, and yada, yada, blah, blah … you know about all of this already. North Carolina is seeking the 7th national title in program history; Kansas is pursuing a 4th NCAA championship banner.
4) On a local note, 30 percent of the players who are listed as starters for Monday’s game all hail from the state of Missouri: St. Louisan Caleb Love (UNC), Columbia’s Dajuan Harris (KU) and Kansas City’s Ochai Agbaji (KU.) A scoring duel between C. Love and O. Agbaji would be fun. Another KU starter, Christian Braun, is the brother of Parker Braun, who played two seasons at Mizzou before transferring. The brothers are from Overland Park, Kansas.
And some of you wanted to give Cuonzo Martin another year at Mizzou? My goodness.
Let’s Pick A Winner: Most signs point to Kansas. But I also remind myself to look at how these teams have performed in recent weeks. And at BartTorvik.com, North Carolina is the top-rated team in college basketball since March 1, with Kansas sitting close by at No. 4. And over that time there isn’t much difference between the teams in their ratings for adjusted efficiency on both offense and defense. Moreover, North Carolina is the superior rebounding team. I point these things out for a simple reason: UNC definitely has a chance here. I think it makes sense to judge these teams on their recent play; the gap is narrow.
That said …
– North Carolina rides the “Iron Five” lineup and has scant production from the bench in this tournament. North Carolina has received only six bench points over its last three games, and that from one player (Puff Johnson.) Kansas has the advantage of bringing in guard Remy Martin and the 6-8 Mitch Lightfoot for impact minutes. UNC can’t afford to get into foul trouble. And there’s also the matter of UNC post player Armando Bacott — the double-double-machine – and his sprained ankle. Will he be 100 percent or close to it?
– I want to quote from this analysis written by Matthew Winick of TheScore.com: “The Jayhawks possess elite size at every position except point guard, where Dajuan Harris’ pesky defense and Remy Martin’s isolation offense will give Tar Heels star Caleb Love problems. In general, Kansas’ defense is wired to disrupt North Carolina; it thrives on defending the 3-point line, allowing double-digit long balls just three times since January and ranking 25th nationally in percentage defense. The Tar Heels lean on their 3-point shooting, taking over 40% of their field goals from deep in the tournament. They’re less efficient around the basket and can struggle in pick-and-roll scenarios.”
— Who can stop Caleb Love? More from Winick: “Kansas also has a plethora of matchup advantages. While Love may be the best pure scorer in the contest, the aforementioned offense-defense combination of Harris and Martin will challenge him on both ends.”
– As Winick points out, North Carolina is in the bottom half nationally in the rankings for both post-up and 3-point defense on a per-possession basis. Kansas should be able to exploit that with their slick inside-out offense.
– Both teams like to push the pace and sprint on the fast break, but Kansas is better in transition defense according to multiple metrics models. And then there’s this from KenPom: Kansas going 6-1 against the spread when facing teams in the top 100 in KenPom’s tempo rankings; North Carolina is 4-5.
– North Carolina’s Brady Manek is having an excellent tournament, knocking down timely threes. But he probably won’t get as many free and easy looks in this one. KU should be able to disrupt Manek with the defense of the 6-8 Jalen Wilson.
Kansas will lose if North Carolina kills ’em on the glass … if KU misses too many free throws, and that’s been a challenge so far in the tournament … if Kansas fails to play its “A” game against a red-hot team; KU has had a relatively easy path to the championship game. I picked North Carolina to topple Duke, so I have abundant respect for the Tar Heels. And I’m going against my own instincts here — because UNC has been such a dependable underdog and ATS force — but my selection is Kansas to win the track meet. But here’s the deal: if Carolina can make KU and their coach sweat in the second half, we’ll all be keenly interested on how Team Jayhawk responds.
KenPom’s forecast: Kansas, 80-74.
Bernie’s secret Adobo formula: Kansas, 76-71.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the game.
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
Follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz
Please email your “Ask Bernie” questions to BernScoops@gmail.com
Stats used in this column were sourced from KenPom.com, BartTorvick.com, TheScore.com
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.