The 83rd edition of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament was headlined by crazy upsets and Cinderella stories, including No. 15 seed St. Peter’s remarkable run to the Elite Eight. However, by the end, two “bluebloods,” a term reserved for the most historic, prestigious, and successful basketball programs, were left to vie for the title: North Carolina, the No. 8 seed from the Western region, and Kansas, the No. 1 seed from the Midwest region.
On April 4, the Kansas Jayhawks (34-6) defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels (29-10) 72-69 in a historic come-from-behind victory. The national championship game was all we could expect, given that it featured two of the most storied programs of all time.
In a back-and-forth national championship game, Kansas took the early lead, going up 7-0 after two Jalen Wilson free throws. North Carolina (UNC) battled back, with star guards Caleb Love and R.J. Wilson pushing the pace and evening the score at eighteen apiece with just over nine minutes to play in the first half. Over the remaining nine minutes of the half, UNC took advantage of a Kansas brickfest in which Kansas made just two of thirteen field goal attempts, breaking out their own 16-0 run and going into halftime with a 40-25 lead. By halftime, the momentum was fully in UNC and Coach Hubert Davis’s favor: it was North Carolina’s game to lose.
But Kansas Coach Bill Self’s team wasn’t going down without a fight. The Jayhawks came out of halftime swinging and ripped off a 16-3 run early in the second half to bring a fifteen-point deficit (40-25) at halftime to just one (46-45) with around 12:40 to play. By the time they retook the lead (53-50) with just over ten minutes to spare, the Jayhawks had outscored the Tar Heels 28-10 to start the second half. From there, the teams battled back and forth, with UNC recapturing the lead by one (69-68) with 1:41 to go on a dunk by senior Brady Manek. Kansas rallied back to take a three-point lead (72-69) on forward David McCormack’s basket with 22 seconds left. UNC star guard Caleb Love’s final three-point attempt fell flat, and Kansas became the national champions.
Before this game, the largest halftime deficit ever overcome in a national championship game was ten points (Kentucky over Utah in 1988) and the largest overall deficit ever overcome in a national championship game was fifteen points (Loyola Chicago over Cincinnati in 1963). Kansas was down sixteen at one point (trailing 38-22 in the first half) and fifteen at halftime! The Jayhawks’ historic comeback in the national championship gave them their fourth-ever national basketball title and second under coach Bill Self.
This Kansas team benefitted from a flurry of experience, with two seniors and five “super seniors,” who were granted an extra season because of the pandemic, leading a squad with a ridiculous 973 games of collective college experience. Graduate transfer and super-senior Remy Martin, a 3-time All-Pac 12 player at Arizona State, sparked the Jayhawks’ comeback effort with fourteen points, including eleven points (4-4 FG, 3-3 3-PT FG) in the second half. Four other players (David McCormack, Christian Braun, Jalen Wilson, and Ochai Agbaji), all of whom were on the 2020 Kansas Basketball team that was the overall No. 1 seed and the favorite to win the championship before the tournament’s cancellation due to COVID-19, added double-digit points. First-team All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year Ochai Agbaji was awarded the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four award after twelve points and three rebounds in the championship game and 21 points in the Jayhawks’ Final Four victory over No. 2 seed Villanova.
On the other hand, UNC made an incredible run through the tournament and Hubert Davis’s first season as head coach and should hold their heads high. In the round of 32, the Tar Heels held off a furious 25-point Baylor comeback to upset the No. 1 seed and defending National Champions Baylor Bears. UNC then handily defeated No. 4 UCLA and Cinderella story No. 15 St. Peters in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. Finally, they prevailed in a thriller against bitter ACC rivals and No. 2 seed Duke in the Final Four to play spoiler to legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game.
UNC fought valiantly in the championship game. Junior forward Armando Bacot, who pushed through an ankle injury suffered just 48 hours prior in their victory against Duke, led the team with fifteen points and fifteen rebounds and totaled 99 rebounds in UNC’s six tournament games, the second-most ever in the history of the tournament. Star guard Caleb Love, the clutch factor and catalyst in the Tar Heels earlier victories against UCLA (30 points) and Duke (28 points), struggled with just thirteen points on 5-24 shooting from the field and 1-8 from 3.
For the Kansas Jayhawks, a prominent college basketball powerhouse, this victory was the culmination of years of effort; Kansas was the heavy favorite in 2020 before the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, and many of the upperclassmen elected to return in pursuit of a championship.
Kansas Coach Bill Self spoke about what this title meant to him and the adversity he had to deal with after his father passed away earlier this year in a post-game interview: “So even though, like I said earlier, I never felt pressure from anybody that we had to do this. But I knew with what we’ve had that we easily could have done more. I actually think it means a lot to me. And this year, I don’t know how these guys feel about me, but I’ve never felt more connected to a group than I have this year. And when you go through stuff and when individuals go through stuff, everybody deals with crap. But I never said a word to these guys about anything I was going through, but they rose their own level to a level that propped me up. This is what makes coaching the best, because players can learn from coaches, but certainly coaches can learn from players.”
In the end, Bill Self led a group of talented and hungry upperclassmen to the fourth national basketball title in Kansas program history and the first since 2008. Congratulations to the Kansas Jayhawks, the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Champions!