No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks (33-6) vs. No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels (29-9)
Time: 8:20 p.m., Monday, April 4, 2022
Location: Caesars Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
TV: TBS | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
1. Empty the tank
It’s a given that the Jayhawks are going to play hard in this one. North Carolina is going to play hard in this one, as well.
You don’t reach the national championship game and then hope to cruise while playing in it. Beyond that, you don’t play in a national title game every day, so adrenaline will be firing higher than ever for players on both sides.
The best way to manage that is by deciding early that you’re going to leave everything you’ve got on the floor in what will be the final game of the college basketball season.
Both programs are known for getting that type of effort out of their players on a regular basis. But this is different. The Jayhawks know it, too. And many of them talked on Sunday about playing with a leave-it-all-out-there mentality from the jump on Monday night.
Ever since losing at TCU in early March, the Jayhawks have basically been doing that. So, it’s not like they’ll have to go far to move the needle from engaged to full throttle. But doing so, particularly early, could go a long way toward helping Kansas build another early lead and play through whatever nerves might be present.
All signs point to Kansas fully understanding what this means.
Leading scorer Ochai Agbaji has been more cut throat this week than at any point in his career. Christian Braun and Remy Martin are known for playing with extreme passion and energy and David McCormack, Mitch Lightfoot and Jalen Wilson are both more than happy to play the type of physical game that winning on Monday night might require.
“No what-ifs, no could’ve beens, none of that,” Lightfoot said on Sunday. “For a bunch of these guys, this is going to be our last time on a college basketball court, so there’s just no what-ifs. It’s something we’ve been preaching the whole tournament. We want to make sure we go out there and play and put our heart down.”
2. Gang rebound
The Jayahwks have been at their best this season when they have entered games knowing that they had to get all five guys to the glass and use their toughness at all five positions to win the rebounding war.
This is one of those games.
And it starts with UNC big man Armando Bacot, who grabbed 21 rebounds in Carolina’s Final Four win over Duke on Saturday night.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior from Richmond, Virginia, is averaging 13.1 rebounds per game on the season, including 4.1 per game on the offensive end.
Although their measurements are similar, he plays bigger than KU’s David McCormack, using his length to keep misses alive and his strength to get whatever position he desires.
It will be interesting to see how an ankle injury he suffered against Duke plays into his effectiveness against Kansas. But the Jayhawks should prepare like he’s 100% and attack the glass like the Tar Heels have three of him.
That certainly sounds like the plan.
“They’ve got two physical guys in the paint,” KU forward Jalen Wilson said of Bacot and Brady Manek. “Armando Bacot’s one of the best rebounders in the country, so we’re going to box him out every single play and always get a body on him.
Led by Bacot, the Tar Heels rank among the top teams in the country in offensive rebounding percentage on both ends of the floor. On offense, their ability to get back 31.3% of their misses ranks 74th nationally, according to KenPom.com. On defense, Bacot’s presence limits opponents to a 21.6% offensive rebounding clip, which puts UNC as the second-best defensive rebounding team in the country.
The Jayhawks rank 36th nationally in going to the offensive glass (at 33.2%) but just 163rd (27.8%) in preventing opponents from getting second chances.
Jalen Wilson said Sunday that he would do everything in his power to grab every rebound possible. This isn’t just tough-guy talk either. During this tournament, Wilson is averaging 10.8 rebounds per game and riding a streak of four consecutive games with double-digit rebounds.
KU big men McCormack and Lightfoot will have plenty to say about which team wins the rebounding battle. So will KU’s guards, all of whom are capable of grabbing anywhere between four and seven rebounds on any given night.
But Wilson is the Jayhawks’ most explosive rebounder and he makes the most sense as the answer to the question that seeks to identify which Jayhawk can make life most difficult for Bacot on the glass.
“He does a great job of using his body to get position on rebounds,” Lightfoot said Sunday. “He’s going to wedge you under and make sure he gets a piece of the pie on almost every rebound. We’ve got to make sure the big guys (understand that) if you don’t have an opportunity to block a shot, then you commit yourself to making sure he doesn’t get a rebound. But that’s easier said than done because he’s such a great rebounder.”
3. Play fast and confident
It’s been a strength all season, so there’s no reason to think it should stray far from KU’s thoughts in this one. That becomes even more true when you listen to what North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said about the Jayhawks’ transition offense on Sunday.
“On film, they appear to be the fastest transition team that I’ve seen this year,” Davis said of top-seeded Kansas. “Whether it’s on made or missed baskets, they sprint to offense.”
North Carolina has what Davis calls “an end game” when it comes to its transition defense — no layups or dunks, no pitch-ahead 3s and make opponents make two passes so the defense can get set.
“We’re going to have to do that (Monday) night,” he said.
The Jayhawks have made a living off of transition opportunities this season, with guards who like to race the ball up the floor, unselfish lineups that have been conditioned to pitch the ball ahead to teammates trying to outrun the defense and enough versatility to have players who rip down rebounds immediately start the break by pushing the ball up the floor immediately off of a miss.
The Jayhawks did not record a single fastbreak point against Villanova on Saturday night, but they have nearly doubled up their opponents on points off the break (29-17) in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Even when they don’t score, though, KU’s unrelenting desire to sprint the ball up the floor forces defenses to retreat instead of attack and helps the Jayhawks find creases to drive, cut and pass into.
North Carolina is not a deep team. The Tar Heels basically play just five guys. In Saturday’s win over Duke, UNC gave just 13 minutes to its bench and it likely would have been closer to half of that number if Bacot had not had to come off the floor for a bit because of the ankle injury.
Pushing the pace — especially on this type of stage — can create problems for UNC’s depth, either bringing fatigue into the equation or forcing quick fouls as the Jayhawks look to attack in transition.
If UNC gets in any kind of serious foul trouble in this one, it’s hard to see them hanging with the Jayhawks. The Tar Heels just do not use their bench. And while Kansas has shortened its bench a ton this postseason, as well, the Jayhawks have a handful of players who at least are used to giving them spot minutes of filling a special need or role.
The Jayhawks rank 44th nationally in average possession length at 16.4 seconds, more than a full second faster than the national average. This suggests that KU’s desire to run matches up with its ability to do so.
While UNC is roughly average in terms of how its defense forces teams to grind out possessions, the Tar Heels would do well to try to make Kansas play the long-possession game in this one, if for no other reason than to take away potential easy baskets that Carolina might not have an offensive answer for.
KU’s defense vs. North Carolina’s sharp-shooting big man Brady Manek
Kansas knows plenty about what former Oklahoma forward Brady Manek is capable of doing on the offensive end on any night.
But whether he plays as a stretch 5 or more of a wing, with Bacot on the floor, will determine a lot of how the Jayhawks defend him. Either way, a lot of the onus here will fall on Wilson.
Manek has been as hot as any individual player in this year’s tournament. He averaged 20 points per game in UNC’s five tourney victories and made nearly 50% of his 3-point attempts, hitting 19 of 40 from beyond the arc.
Together, he and UNC guard Caleb Love have combined to attempt one less 3-point shot (90) in this year’s NCAA Tournament than KU’s entire team. So to say someone has to be aware of where Manek is and what he’s doing is a bit of an understatement.
“Brady has obviously been unbelievable,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Sunday. “He’s such a good player.”
Manek’s length, at 6-foot-10, and high release makes him a threat to get a shot off in just about any situation. And he does a great job of squaring his body and firing a quick release when coming off of screens. The easiest way for KU to combat that is by crowding him and not letting him get the room he needs to catch the ball or elevate cleanly.
Jalen Wilson will be the Kansas player who spends the most time on Manek in this one, and Wilson has shown of late that he, like many of his teammates, has put a priority on defending. But to say Manek’s entire output is dependent on how well Wilson defends him would be inaccurate. The Jayhawks will switch often and throw different looks Manek’s way to try to keep him uncomfortable and from finding any kind of rhythm.
We haven’t seen it much this season, but don’t be surprised for a second if Self elects to utilize some kind of junk defense if Manek gets going.
"He is always open," Braun said of Manek. So, when he catches it, he does not have to dip to shoot, he just shoots it. He does not need any time to get it off. We cannot allow him to get going early and give him confidence."
Ever since the second half of that Miami win in the Elite Eight, the Jayhawks have been incredibly loose.
They looked so calm and confident in the semifinal win over Villanova and they continue to look like a team that’s both having fun and fully focused on the task at hand.
Throughout the week, the Jayhawks have talked about how just getting to New Orleans was not their goal. Instead, they came to win it all. And now they have an opportunity to do just that.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas list Kansas as a 4-point favorite in this one, making the Jayhawks the betting favorite in all six of their NCAA Tournament games this season.
KenPom lists KU as a slightly bigger favorite, with an 80-74 edge in the matchup and a 69% win probability.
Here’s the funny thing about these Tar Heels: As an 8 seed, they’re vying to become the lowest-seeded team to win a national title since Villanova won it as an 8 seed in 1985. And that Nova win over Georgetown is widely regarded as one of the biggest upsets in sports history. This would not be quite that big, but UNC’s seed and record do speak to the reason KU is favored.
Like Villanova on Saturday, North Carolina enters this one with a one-game edge in the all-time series between these two programs, leading 6-5.
The two programs have met six times in the NCAA Tournament — KU leads in those games 4-2 — and Self is 4-1 all-time against UNC, including a 3-0 mark while at Kansas.
Whether the outside world expected the Jayhawks to be in this position is irrelevant. These guys did. From the minute they started their offseason work to the addition of 10 new players, including four freshmen and four transfers, this veteran group believed it could do something special this season.
Now that they’re on the brink of it, they’re planning to take full advantage and aren’t interested in letting anything derail their plans.
“With the pieces that we’ve got and the practices and battles we have gone through, I think we have always felt like we are one of the best teams in the country,” senior guard Remy Martin said.
The Jayhawks have 40 minutes to prove that they’re not one of the best but the absolute best. If they do that, they’ll bring a sixth national title to the program and a week’s worth of celebrating to Lawrence, Kansas.
No. 1 Kansas
G – Dajuan Harris Jr., 6-1, 180, Soph.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Sr.
G – Christian Braun, 6-7, 205, Jr.
F – Jalen Wilson, 6-8, 225, Soph.
F – David McCormack, 6-10, 265, Sr.
No. 8 North Carolina
G – Caleb Love, 6-4, 195, Soph.
G – RJ Davis, 6-0, 175, Soph.
F – Leaky Black, 6-8, 200, Sr.
F – Brady Manek, 6-9, 230, Sr.
F – Armando Bacot, 6-10, 240, Jr.