On Monday night, the No. 8 seed UNC men’s basketball team will play in the national championship game for the first time since 2017.
Saturday’s 81-77 instant classic win over No. 2 seed Duke may have been one of the most cathartic and impactful victories in the history of the Tobacco Road rivalry — but the Tar Heels have little time to dwell on that win. The only thing now standing between the Tar Heels and a title is the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks.
The blue-blooded Jayhawks enter this game off an 81-65 win over Villanova in the Final Four that often looked more one-sided than the score indicates.
In what could shape up to be this team’s toughest match of the season, here are three keys to the game to help ensure a Franklin Street championship parade.
Contain Ochai Agbaji
Just 48 hours after trying to figure out how to stop Duke’s Paolo Banchero, the Tar Heels will immediately be tasked with slowing down another collegiate star in Kansas forward Ochai Agbaji.
The consensus first-team all-American has averaged 18.9 points per game for the Jayhawks and flashed the ability to score from all three levels. He leads the team with a 41.1 percent clip from deep, but his physical 6-foot-5 build also allows him to thrive in the painted area.
In the semifinal game against Villanova, Agbaji made his first six shots – all triples — en route to the win. Despite his hot shooting, Kansas shifted to other players on the offense, namely forwards Jalen Wilson and David McCormack.
UNC has a number of defensive options to shadow the Jayhawks star, but the likely candidate is senior wing Leaky Black, who has taken on many of the team’s top assignments this season. Against Duke, Black held AJ Griffin — a likely top-10 NBA Draft pick — to just six points on 1-7 shooting.
Like the Blue Devils, Kansas has star power throughout the lineup, but keying in on the team’s most versatile weapon will be vital in holding the Jayhawks’ offense at bay.
Hot start on offense
Critical to UNC’s win over the Blue Devils was an open flow of buckets right from the jump. Black opened the game’s scoring with a 3-pointer, but Duke was able to jump into a small lead off of two massive dunks from center Mark Williams.
All season, UNC head coach Hubert Davis has preached the success that comes with landing the first scoring punch, and it looked like the Blue Devils had asserted their dominance in the paint after those slams.
But the Tar Heels showed that the first true haymaker would be their own.
A pair of free throws from graduate transfer forward Brady Manek and a slam from junior big man Armando Bacot put the score at 8-4. While Trevor Keels responded with a layup, sophomore guard RJ Davis kept up his hot hand in the NCAA Tournament, draining a 3-pointer to give UNC a five-point cushion.
To be sure, the Blue Devils clawed back and turned the game into a blow-for-blow brawl, but UNC starting out hot gave them an ample cushion and enough confidence to take — and make — the shots they needed. Against a team like the Jayhawks, where players like Agbaji and McCormack can hit big shots and throw punches early, a hot start from the Tar Heels will be just as essential.
When Bacot fell to the Superdome floor with an ankle injury with five minutes to play against Duke, all 70,000-plus fans in attendance held their breath.
With the game tied, it seemed like the Blue Devils would march to the title game in the absence of the Tar Heels’ most consistent player. Instead, the forward returned a minute later to give the team a much-needed defensive presence that helped keep the game close before UNC pulled ahead for good.
Bacot was noticeably beaten up after the game, limping throughout from station to station around the corridors of the arena. But considering the stage the team is currently standing on — as well as remembering the rollercoaster ride the last two years have been — he was adamant on playing in the championship.
He’ll immediately draw the assignment of McCormack, a third-team All-Big 12 selection that scored 25 points against an undersized Villanova squad. Keeping him out of the paint and off the glass will be a priority, but Bacot has proven to be one of the better rebounders in the nation, as his 21 against the Blue Devils were the most in a Final Four game since 2003.
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