2022 national title game: Kansas could have won 2020 NCAA Tournament, but beating UNC would help ease the pain

NEW ORLEANS – The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament two years ago due to COVID-19 did not make Kansas special. They all dealt with the loss of March Madness in their own way. Before the virus spread across the country and the world, it closed the Grand Ball. Basketball lives were shattered. Psyches took a hit. The game was brought to its knees.

Except that the 2019-2020 Jayhawks They were special. really special.

“We had the best great defensive player in the country,” KU coach Bill Self recalled Sunday. “We had the best defensive guard in the country and we had a second-team All-American on top of that. So that was tough.”

Those Jayhawks from two years ago were ranked No. 1, won the Big 12 by two games, went 28-3, and were widely assumed to be the No. 1 overall seed in tournament never played. When COVID-19 hit, they had won 16 in a row.

“I know what we would have done that year…” David McCormack said the day before Kansas plays in the national championship, this time against North Carolina, for the first time in a decade. “I think we would have gone all the way.”

There’s no way to know for sure, of course. What we are left with are computer projections and broken dreams. Of course, KU was destined to return to the tournament. That’s a fact. But how would he have fared with that forever team that included Self’s self-proclaimed great defender (rim guard Udoka Azubuike), National Defensive Player of the Year (guard Marcus Garrett) and second-team All-American (Devon Dotson? )? . All three played in the NBA.

“We knew every game we were going to win,” said shooting guard Christian Braun, a 2020 freshman.

“It was probably our best-equipped team to go deep into the tournament,” Self said.

That statement comes from a man who has led the Jayhawks to 19 NCAA tournaments, including five Final Fours. McCormack is one of eight Jayhawks left over from that 2020 team. Six of them are now starters or in the main rotation of the current team that is still wondering what would have happened had the pandemic not hit.

“There’s always that what-if factor after the 2020 season,” said star shooting guard Ochai Agbaji, a sophomore on that team, “especially after the streak we had to close out that season.” [That] It was incredible. That’s why I keep saying we’re doing it for them because we have the same feeling.”

These Jayhawks are also seeded No. 1, but were never ranked No. 1 at any point in the season. A late January loss at home to Kentucky exposed Kansas and raised questions. It would be difficult to project that team would come close to a national championship.

The Jayhawks are 16-3 since losing three times on the road in the Big 12. For some still unexplained reason, KU started playing better defense around the time of the Big 12 Tournament last month. That continued Saturday night against Villanova, who shot 39%. In the five tournament games, opponents have shot 35% against KU, the lowest of any team in the tournament.

A subplot has developed, that on Monday night Kansas can “avenge” that 2020 hole in their championship chases. This team isn’t as good as it was two years ago, but it has something the Jayhawks didn’t have: a group to play in. There is a win-one mentality for those who leave.

“That’s why I keep saying we’re doing it for them because we have the same feeling,” Agbaji said.

“We were playing really good defense,” said 2020 sixth-year senior Mitch Lightfoot. “We had shooters all over the place. So many pieces that team had. It’s kind of tough, but I really think it’s going to be difficult for a team like it to replicate”.

One of the few outsiders on that 2020 team is Arizona State transfer Remy Martin. He came to Kansas in the offseason averaging 19 points in consecutive seasons. When COVID-19 shut down ASU’s 2020 season, the Sun Devils were poised to participate in three consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time since the 1960s.

Martin played his final season at Arizona State in 2020-2021 to few to no crowds. The senior guard is almost personally responsible for one of Bill Self’s 16 home losses in his 19 seasons. In 2017, Martin scored 21 in the Sun Devils’ 95-85 win at Allen Fieldhouse. Arizona State followed up a year later by winning at home against Kansas.

Plus, the Jayhawks probably wouldn’t be here without his 11.7 points and 4.4 assist-to-turnover ratio since March 11.

“We might as well give everything we’ve got,” Martin said. “It’s the last game. The whole world is going to be watching. This is the moment we’ve all been preparing for.”

The epic and emotional end to Mike Krzyzewski’s career continues to overshadow Monday’s championship game matchup. This is North Carolina-Kansas for God’s sake. If Carolina wins, it would tie 1985 Villanova as the lowest-seeded team (No. 8) to win a title. Nova’s win over Georgetown 37 years ago is considered one of the greatest in the sport.

A victory for Carolina on Monday would not have the same feeling. Villanova won that year during the nascent years of the Big East. This is basketball royalty facing off. Retired Roy Williams has coached both teams. The programs are linked from the hip going back to Dean Smith, who played at KU and coached at Carolina. Brad Frederick, son of former KU AD Bob Frederick, is on the Carolina bench as an assistant.

The pressure will increase enormously for the loser. Both schools consider the championships a birthright. Kansas last played for one in 2012, losing to Kentucky here. Williams handed over the last Tar Heels championship in 2017.

Self is chasing his second national title, the first since 2008. Which is why the possibility that COVID-19 took the Jayhawks from them two years ago makes the longing a little more intense.

“In most places, winning a national championship would be a huge accomplishment,” the KU coach said. “I think with as many good teams as we’ve had, one is not enough.”

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