Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: Who will win the national title?
Josh’s Take: UNC
Gene, I’ve learned a few things in my day. Things like: you can’t outrun a hungry dog with a T-bone in your pocket, you shouldn’t eat yellow snow, and the house eventually wins... even when you’re sitting on 20 and the dealer has 19. When it comes to sports in particular, another thing I’ve learned is that you should never pick against the team of destiny. A team of destiny overcomes the largest obstacles, gets all the breaks, has the most luck, and the ball always bounces their way.
North Carolina feels like one of those teams to me — a team of destiny. They’re also super talented, which is a nice-to-have when the gods of sports karma are already on your side.
Here’s how I know that North Carolina is a team of destiny: they ended the evil, nefarious, preposterous reign of college basketball’s most heinous villain, Coach K. I mean, the man was such a super-villain that others stopped calling him by his real name! Coach K became Mike Krzyzewski’s alter-ego, and he fully embraced it, ditching his family name in the year 2003. Did you know that, Gene? He completely abandoned it, and will now only answer to some iteration of “K”. Similar to Edward Nigma leaning all the way in to his Riddler persona, the Duke coach went completely off the rails. Fortunately, UNC put an end to his reign of terror, and the world of college basketball can now move forward peacefully.
But seriously, think about the unprecedented run these Tar Heels have been on. They spent the majority of the season outside of the top-25 rankings. They were 3-8 in Quad 1 games prior to the NCAA Tournament, and were consistently stomped by the highest-ranked teams they played.
Early games against Purdue and Tennessee were close(ish) on paper, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt because those games were played in November. In December, Kentucky beat North Carolina by 29 points. A month later, Miami – who was unranked but had a nice run in this tournament – hammered them by 28. And finally, in February, Duke embarrassed them at home by 20. In between, the Heels defeated nobody of significance. They picked on a watered-down ACC. But then fate intervened. UNC was given a chance to change their narrative, and that is exactly what they did.
The Tar Heels entered Cameron Indoor on March 5 with nothing to lose. Due to their poor Q1 record, they were squarely on the bubble and staring down the barrel of a few different scenarios: lose and hope for a deep ACC Tournament run, or win and ruin the most pompous career celebration the sporting world has ever seen — while getting a much-needed boost to their NCAA Tournament profile. The Heels chose the latter. Their victory at Duke is what likely got them in, as they were then eliminated in the second round of the ACC tourney.
Once in the dance, North Carolina started playing to their potential, and their ceiling is why I like this team to finish off a special run. Hubert Davis is a first-year coach, and it took him some time to figure things out. It seems like he has done that. Center Armando Bacot is a double-double machine wreaking havoc on the interior. Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek has upped his game from the regular season, averaging 20 PPG during March Madness. And guard Caleb Love, whose shot selection has driven me crazy for two years, has morphed into a second-half assassin.
The big three are hitting on all cylinders, and the Heels also getting stellar play from R.J Davis and lockdown defense from Leaky Black. While Kansas is a heck of an opponent, UNC has now proven that they can take down anybody. They could have folded against top-seeded Baylor, but they kept their composure in OT and came out on top. They took on Cinderella (St. Peter’s) and ended the fairy tale. Finally, they doubled down on their slaying of the dragon (Duke) and shocked the college basketball world for a second time.
Now the North Carolina Tar Heels have a date with destiny — or the Kansas Jayhawks, if you don’t subscribe to what I’m putting out there. Matchup-wise, the Heels are well-equipped to handle the Jayhawks. KU is well-rounded, but UNC can defend all three levels. On offense, both teams have been hot during the tournament, but I think Love or Manek has the potential to go nuclear. 30 points from either player is not out of the question. Bill Self gives Kansas a coaching edge on paper, but we just watched Hubert Davis take down a legend in what should have been his swan song.
This North Carolina squad is no longer an 8-seed. They are a team peaking at the right time, with a coach and players who believe. The Tar Heels have a chance to go down in history as one of the biggest underdogs to ever win an NCAA championship, and I believe that they will.
Gene’s Take: Kansas
If you've listened to Josh and I’s podcast on these here airwaves, you’ll know by now that I am one to get on a good rant when it’s a topic I feel passionately about, whether that is about a certain strength and conditioning coach or a particular safety — neither of whom shall be named. This could certainly be one of those moments for me, and it may be an ‘old man yells at cloud’ moment, but why the hell are we playing the national title game at 9:20 p.m. ET on a Monday night!? There is no reason this game can’t tipoff around a reasonable 7:00 p.m., especially since the insane amount of ads they are going to subject us to will likely carry this game well past midnight... but I digress.
The game itself should actually be a ton of fun, as has this whole NCAA Tournament. From start to finish this was one of the more enjoyable March Madnesses in quite a while. While that certainly stems from this being the first ‘real’ tourney since the start of COVID, it also helped that it seemed as though just about every game was competitive. The opening rounds had their fare share of upsets, and we had a handful of Cinderalla teams including of course the St. Peter’s Peacocks, who had the longest run of any 15 seed ever. As is the case with most good tournaments, the best teams still find their way into the Final Four in the end even after all the chaos, and that is exactly what we got with No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Villanova, No. 2 Duke and the most surprising of the bunch, No. 8 UNC.
I have to be honest, as Josh alluded too, I really thought the black magic of Coach K’s final season was going to will Duke into the championship game. Even with the play of Paolo Banchero, the Blue Devils were nothing special this year, but having made it this far fueled by seemingly nothing other than a head coach’s massive ego, I thought we’d be seeing that evil smirk on our TVs on Monday night. Instead, it will be UNC that gets the pleasure of taking on the team that I thought from the beginning was the very best in this year’s field.
My bracket was terrible overall, but the one team I was correct about was Kansas, who I have winning it all. The Jayhawks were certainly good but nothing overly spectacular during the regular season, finishing 25-6 with a 14-4 mark in conference, stumbling a bit at the end of the year with back-to-back losses again Baylor and TCU before bouncing back to win their final two games and earn a share of the Big 12 Title and then the Big 12 Tournament. Watching every game Kansas played in their conference tourney turned me into a believer, and so I took them to win it all in this year’s March Madness, and now here we are just one game away.
Kansas has been led all season by the play of senior guard Ochai Agbaji, who is destined to become a lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft. The 6-foot-5 three-year starter averaged 18.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game during the 2021-22 campaign, and is the straw that stirs the drink of this Jayhawk squad. Not including their first round cakewalk over Texas Southern, Kansas has struggled a bit when Agbaji is not at his best, and has dominated when he’s playing up to his standards.
Agbaji went 5-of-14 from the floor against Creighton with 15 points in a game his team won by seven, and then put up just five points against Providence in a five-point nail-biter for Kansas. He has found his stroke in the last two games, however, and Kansas has been all the better for it. His 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting with five rebounds, four assists and four steals against Miami led to a 26-point blowout, and his 21 point outing against Villanova wherein he drilled 6-of-7 from beyond the arc helped pull away from the Wildcats in a 81-65 win to send the Jayhawks to the title game.
While Agbaji is the team’s true star, Kansas is a complete team with a ton of great complimentary pieces. The 6-foot-10, 265-pound David McCormack is a handful inside, and scored a game-high 25 points against undersized Villanova. Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson both averaged double-digits in points this season shooting over 46% each from the floor, while Arizona State transfer Remy Martin has also provided a spark at times. The Jayhawks are talented, deep and well coached under Bill Self.
The Vegas odds currently have this game around a four-point spread in favor of Kansas, and while I think this game will be close for most of the night, the Jayhawks just have far too much firepower and will pull away in the end. I do think that another heroic effort from Caleb Love could will UNC to the upset here, but it’s too late now to turn my back on the team I picked to win it from the jump.