NCAA Championship Preview: Kansas vs. North Carolina

NCAA Championship Preview: Kansas vs. North Carolina

This article is part of our NCAA Championship Preview series.

No.8 North Carolina Tar Heels

Matchup Overview: Two teams with drastically different paths are set to battle Monday night. Kansas, winners of the Big 12 regular season and tournament, have coasted to the championship game, winning three of its last five games by double digits and outscoring its last two opponents 127-80 over the past three halves. North Carolina, meanwhile, was firmly on the bubble a month and a half ago, having fallen to lowly Pittsburgh at home by nine. Since then, the Tar Heels have beaten Duke (twice), defending national champion Baylor (who tied Kansas for the regular season Big 12 title) and UCLA. 

Strength: Lack of depth. This may seem like a weakness, which we'll get to later. UNC plays all five of its starters as much as they can handle. Forward Armando Bacot (16.3 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 1.7 big) has posted a double-double in all five tournament wins and 30 times overall, has 20+ rebounds in consecutive games and is averaging 16.8 boards in the tournament. He dominates the paint while three others provide floor-spacing shooting. Brady Manek (15.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg) has connected on 50 percent or better of his 3-pointers in all but one tournament game and will draw Kansas' Jalen Wilson out of the paint, creating driving lanes and kick-out opportunities for a dynamic backcourt of Caleb Love (16.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.6 apg) and R.J. Davis (13.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.7 apg). Davis carried the Heels against Baylor (30 points, six assists, five

No.8 North Carolina Tar Heels

Matchup Overview: Two teams with drastically different paths are set to battle Monday night. Kansas, winners of the Big 12 regular season and tournament, have coasted to the championship game, winning three of its last five games by double digits and outscoring its last two opponents 127-80 over the past three halves. North Carolina, meanwhile, was firmly on the bubble a month and a half ago, having fallen to lowly Pittsburgh at home by nine. Since then, the Tar Heels have beaten Duke (twice), defending national champion Baylor (who tied Kansas for the regular season Big 12 title) and UCLA. 

Strength: Lack of depth. This may seem like a weakness, which we'll get to later. UNC plays all five of its starters as much as they can handle. Forward Armando Bacot (16.3 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 1.7 big) has posted a double-double in all five tournament wins and 30 times overall, has 20+ rebounds in consecutive games and is averaging 16.8 boards in the tournament. He dominates the paint while three others provide floor-spacing shooting. Brady Manek (15.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg) has connected on 50 percent or better of his 3-pointers in all but one tournament game and will draw Kansas' Jalen Wilson out of the paint, creating driving lanes and kick-out opportunities for a dynamic backcourt of Caleb Love (16.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.6 apg) and R.J. Davis (13.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.7 apg). Davis carried the Heels against Baylor (30 points, six assists, five rebounds) and in the first half against Duke, but hasn't shot well overall in the postseason (25-of-85, 29.4 percent), but his move to primary point guard has spurned UNC's resurgence. Love, meanwhile, is simply fearless and completely plays in the moment, never remembering his last possession. He dropped 30 on UCLA and 28 on Duke. All four of these options are capable of going off any night, which makes UNC very difficult to defend. And speaking of defense, Leaky Black (5.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.8 apg), who rounds out this starting five, was likely snubbed as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He's locking down whoever he's tasked with guarding, and how the Heels choose to match up could be a deciding factor.

Weakness: Lack of depth. Come again? Yes, the Tar Heels' strength is also their weakness, with this side being far more obvious. In the national semifinal, UNC saw its bench play a total of 13 minutes, and that's with Davis committing four fouls and Bacot fouling out. Head coach Hubert Davis trusts his starting five to play through potential foul issues, but if multiple options are in trouble, there aren't options to replace them. Yes, UNC's reserves in Dontrez Styles, Puff Johnson and Justin McKoy miraculously helped stave off Baylor's furious comeback in the round of 32. But this stage is different. Their inexperience will put UNC up a creek if the Heels can't get 33+ minutes from all its starters. 

Intangibles: 3-point defense. During the regular season, North Carolina suffered through ample defensive lapses, allowing 33.7 percent of opposing 3-pointers to fall, ranking 182nd nationally. But during this run to Monday, the Tar Heels have had statistical success, allowing a combined 31-of-120 (25.8 percent). In watching the games, I feel like some of that has been more luck than sound defense, as I've seen some decent looks not fall. But the numbers are what they are. Kansas ranks 52nd in 3-point shooting, knocking down 36.1 percent. They also defend it terrifically, allowing only a 30.1 percent success rate, ranking 25th nationally. North Carolina has nailed 50 3-pointers during the tournament, at an identical 36 percent success rate to their season totals. Safe to say whichever team defends the arch the best is cutting down the nets Monday evening.

North Carolina will win IF: They put Saturday behind them. UNC is clearly playing its best basketball of the season, peaking at the right time and seemingly looking like a team of destiny. The starting five all appear to have ice in their veins and have proven capable of rising to any task in front of them. But are they emotionally spent after this run, and a win over their arch rival with unprecedented stakes at hand? 

Prediction: It's been an absolute privilege and blessing to write on the east region this year, as I've been very open that the Tar Heels are my team and I feel like I know them forwards and backwards. I'm not at all surprised by this run, and as I've told my sons since December, this team is talented enough to beat anyone. And while they've proven that, I've picked against them every step of the way in these columns. So if it's not broke, don't fix it. I honestly like UNC's chances here, and kind of expect them to win. But no way I'm jinxing that. Kansas has more depth, and enough size to handle UNC's forwards and smaller guards. The shots don't fall for the Heels Monday night, and the Jayhawks cut down the nets as a result.

-Written by Chris Bennett.

No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks

Matchup Overview: Kansas has had the benefit of its share of breaks along the way, having played only one team in KenPom's top-25, Villanova, a team down a key contributor after Justin Moore tore his Achilles late in the second half against Houston. That wasn't the only injury benefit of the tournament for the Jayhawks, as they snuck by a Creighton team that was missing its best player in Ryan Kalkbrenner. That's not to say Kansas isn't deserving of being here, as the team put on an offensive display in the Final Four, posting a whopping 1.4 points per possession against the Wildcats.

There isn't expected to be a shortage of points in this one, with both teams ranking among the top-65 (top-20 percent) nationally in adjusted tempo and leading to high over/under of 153.5. That's also in part due to the efficiency of both offenses – UNC is averaging 82.2 points per game compared to Kansas'  77, and both teams each have four players averaging double figures.

Strength: Kansas has managed to get this far in part because its been solid in all aspects, with its ability to control the glass standing out the most. The Jayhawks have won the rebounding battle in all five NCAA Tournament games and are particularly good at giving themselves second-chance opportunities, with double-digit offensive boards in four of five tournament games. Senior center David McCormack is a big part of the success in the category, as he ranks fourth in the country in offensive rebounding percentage, while 6-8 Jalen Wilson has secured at least 11 rebounds in four consecutive games. Winning the rebounding battle will be a key factor in securing the National Championship – Kansas has been out-rebounded in all six of its losses this season.

Weakness: It feels a bit nitpicky to point out weakness in either team still remaining, as making it this far weeds out teams with glaring holes in their game, especially considering Kansas has outscored its opponents by a combined 41 points over the last two games. Although the Jayhawks just lit up Villanova for 13 threes on 54 percent shooting from deep, this isn't a squad that has relied on its long-range shooting. The Jayhawks had made just 13 threes in total in their previous three games, and against a UNC team that has size in the frontcourt, they will need to shoot it well from the perimeter in order to come out victorious.

Intangibles: If bench play becomes a factor at all in this game, it's a clear area where Kansas has the edge. Although he has been quiet the last two games, sixth man Remy Martin led the team in scoring in three-straight games to start the tournament and is capable of scoring 20+ points off the bench if the starters are struggling. Mitch Lightfoot has also put in quality minutes as a reserve in the post in order to keep McCormack fresh. UNC lacks depth and rarely looks to go to its bench unless Bacot gets into foul trouble. That's something to keep an eye on considering the likely fast-paced nature of the game.

Kansas Will Win If: They keep Bacot in check. While R.J. Davis, Caleb Love and Brady Manek are all more likely to steal the spotlight with a 25+ point performance, Bacot is the guy that fuels the Tar Heels' success. He's posted a double-double in seven consecutive games with eight offensive rebounds in three straight games. Kansas can't allow him to give UNC several second-chance opportunities and need to limit his scoring and rebounding dominance. The Jayhawks have been effective defending the perimeter, holding opponents to 30 percent shooting from three this season. They can rely on that strength but can't let Bacot get easy buckets.

Prediction: While Kansas comes in as the oddsmakers' favorite to win the game, based on their NCAA Tournament runs alone, UNC has looked like the better team throughout. The Tar Heels have answered every question along the way and have had to fight off their share of adversity, beating defending national champion Baylor in overtime after blowing a 25-point lead and coming up clutch late against Duke in a game that had 18 lead changes. UNC's balance of outstanding guard play, frontcourt and three-point shooting will lead them to their fourth National Championship since 2005.

-Written by Ryan Pohle

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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Chris Bennett
Bennett covers baseball, college football and college basketball for RotoWire. Before turning to fantasy writing, he worked in scouting/player development for the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos. He's also a fan of the ACC.
Ryan Pohle
Ryan Pohle breaks down golf bets and covers college basketball for RotoWire.
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