While they’re unlikely to come up in any sort of debate over the NCAA tournament’s “greatest Cinderella ever,” North Carolina finds itself just one win away from matching 1985 Villanova as the lowest-seeded team to ever win the national championship. The newfound respect for the 8th-seeded Tar Heels is on full display in the fact that they are a mere 4-point underdog to a Kansas team that is a No. 1 seed and which has been one of the national title favorites all season long.
If North Carolina is going to win its seventh, and most improbable, national championship on Monday night, here are three things that need to happen.
1. Keep the Caleb Love magic going
For most of the 2021-22 men’s college basketball season, Caleb Love has been one of the most maddening players in the country to watch. There were stretches where he looked like he should be the front-runner for every major national player of the year award, and then stretches in the same game where he looked like a guy who should be coming off the bench for a high school JV team.
In late February, Love’s season was most notable for two ridiculous statistics. The first was the fact that North Carolina was somehow 9-0 in games where the guard turned the ball over five times or more (they’re still unbeaten in this situation, by the way, which last happened against Baylor in the second round). The second was that Love, at the time, was the only player in the history of college basketball who had attempted at least 150 2-pointers and 150 3-pointers to be shoot a better percentage from beyond the arc than inside of it.
Everything has been different for Love in the NCAA tournament. He’s been clutch, he’s been composed, and the three highest-scoring games of his 2021-22 season — 23 points against Marquette in the first round, 30 points against UCLA in the Sweet 16, and 28 against Duke in Saturday’s second national semifinal — have all come in the Big Dance.
Oh, and Saturday night on the sport’s biggest stage, he just happened to hit one of the biggest shots in the long and storied history of North Carolina basketball.
The shot of Caleb Love’s life.— John Ellis (@1PantherPlace) April 3, 2022
What a game.
North Carolina is 12-0 this season in games where Love scores 20 points or more. The Tar Heels are just 17-9 in contests where he fails to hit that mark.
If Love’s miraculous postseason run continues for one more game, North Carolina is probably about to become just the second 8-seed ever to cut down the nets. If he reverts to the extreme inconsistency that plagued his college career before the last three weeks, well, then Monday night is likely going to belong to the Jayhawks.
2. Stay hot from deep
North Carolina’s surprise run to Monday night has been fueled primarily by red-hot three-point shooting. Because Love, R.J. Davis, Brady Manek and company have been hitting the outside shot at a higher clip, they’ve also been taking a larger percentage of their shots from three.
During the regular season, the Tar Heels took about 38 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. In their upset wins over Baylor, UCLA and Duke, that number jumped to 44 percent, 47 percent and 41 percent, respectively.
The Tar Heels have scored more than a third of their points in this NCAA tournament from behind the three-point line. Three members of the UNC “Iron 5” shoot better than 37.0 percent from deep, and all three have knocked down at least 60 triples so far this season. As a team, UNC has made at least 10 three-pointers in each one of their wins in the Big Dance outside of their 20-point thumping of Saint Peter’s in the Elite Eight, a game where they were able to overwhelm the undersized Peacocks in the paint.
No team in the history of North Carolina basketball has been more reliant on the outside shot than this one. It’s hard to envision them winning the national title if they don’t stay hot from the perimeter.
3. Get a monster night from Armando Bacot
When Armando Bacot went down with what appeared to be some sort of nasty lower body injury late in the second half against Duke Saturday night, it seemed like the end for North Carolina’s national title hopes. Even if the Tar Heels were able to hang on against their arch-rivals from Durham, facing David McCormack and Kansas without the services of Bacot seemed like an unmanageable task.
Thankfully for everyone associated with UNC basketball, Bacot suffered only a mild ankly sprain and was able to return to the game against Duke. He appears to be a full-go for Monday night against Kansas.
When Bacot was asked during media availability on Sunday about his status for the national title game, he summed up the situation succinctly:
“We don’t have another big man, so I don’t have a choice.”
Indeed, there’s not really a Plan B for North Carolina inside if Bacot is injured, or in foul trouble, or simply having an off-night. The Heels would likely be forced to go small and slide Brady Manek down to the five, a move which would be fine when Carolina had the ball in its hands, but which would leave them totally outmanned on defense against McCormack and Kansas’ other frontcourt talent.
Everyone just sort of assumes Bacot will produce some form of a double-double Monday night, which is understandable. The big man has had at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in all five of North Carolina’s NCAA tournament wins, and in 11 of their last 12 games overall (his only non-double-double over that span was a 23-point, seven-rebound performance in UNC’s win over Duke at Cameron Indoor). Earlier this season, he became the first Tar Heel in 57 years to have a double-double in at least 10 straight games.
If he falls short of those marks, whether it’s because of the ankle or McCormack’s play or foul trouble or whatever, it goes without saying that UNC is likely in trouble.
How to watch Kansas vs. North Carolina for NCAA basketball championship
Game date: Monday, April 4th
Game time: 9:20 p.m. ET
TV channel: TBS
Location: Superdome, New Orleans, LA