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March Madness has delivered on its promise, bringing 62 games full of drama and excitement in just over three weeks of postseason play. The college basketball season culminates in New Orleans on Monday night, with Kansas and North Carolina meeting in the national final.

The two teams followed wildly different paths to get here, but each stands just 40 minutes from cutting down the nets as champions. Kansas will tip as favorites, but it would be unwise to count out a Carolina team that has answered the bell time after time this month.

The Context

These are two of the winningest programs in college basketball history, each bringing rich traditions and past championships to the table. For North Carolina, however, this March has felt different. The 8-seeded Heels have played the unfamiliar role as Cinderella, tying the record for the highest seed to play for a championship. They are looking for their second title in just six years, after topping Gonzaga for the 2017 championship.

Kansas, meanwhile, has been a constant near the top of the polls all season long. The Jayhawks were the lone top seed to make the Final Four and are eager to win the first title since 2008. They were a popular pick in 2020 prior to the tournament’s cancellation as the pandemic spread. This year offers a chance for redemption.

One member of the crowd at the Superdome will have a particular interest in the gam – Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams led both of these programs to multiple Final Four appearances, though his heart is certainly with his hometown Tar Heels and his successor Hubert Davis.

The Spread

The Jayhawks are listed as four-point favorites after topping Villanova by double-figures on Saturday night. That number feels low, yet it’s hard to discount what North Carolina has done this month. If Kansas was playing the Tar Heels who lost a home game to Pitt or by 20-plus points to Wake Forest, this line would certainly be higher, but the North Carolina team we’ve seen over the last three weeks deserves respect.

The major question that will linger in the lead up to tip-off circles around Armando Bacot’s status. The Tar Heel big man rolled his ankle in Saturday’s win over Duke. While he did return and play effectively, sprained ankles tend to get worse in the ensuing days. No doubt his swelling and pain will have increased, making his ability to dominate as he has all March much less likely.

The Total

The total of 152 for this game is high for college basketball. These teams both like to push the pace, ranking in the top 65 nationally in tempo, per KenPom. Interestingly, though, neither of these teams shoot a particularly high number of 3-pointers. Both rank outside the top 150 in the nation in 3-point rate, though both do shoot their 3s well. Kansas and Villanova broke the Final Four record for made 3s in a game, and the Jayhawks would need to stay hot for this number to hit the over.

The Matchup

Bacot’s status on the interior is key. North Carolina needs him to battle with Kansas’ David McCormack in the paint. Those two big men should make for a fantastic matchup, especially on the boards where both are among the best in the nation, although McCormack has an advantage if Bacot is slowed by injury.

On the perimeter, North Carolina’s guards have been excellent all month long. RJ Davis and Caleb Love have both blossomed into creative playmakers and clutch shotmakers to drive the Tar Heel offense. They will have a tough test against an athletic and long Jayhawk backcourt.

I’ll have a particular eye on how the Tar Heels attack Remy Martin when he comes off the Kansas bench. He can drive the Kansas offense with some dribble-drive attacks, but his defense can be a liability.

The Best Bet

Eventually, it feels like North Carolina has to play a game that looks more like the Tar Heel team we saw from November to February than the world-beating juggernaut they have been in March. On the only occasion they showed their flaws this month, they nearly blew a 25-point second half lead to Baylor.

Kansas simply has too many offensive weapons and too much defensive talent for North Carolina to continue their improbable level of play. Bill Self will have his Jayhawks in position to slow down Davis and Love, with McCormack well-suited to brawl with Bacot, healthy or not.

I’m taking the Jayhawks and laying the four points (-110), mainly because Kansas is simply better on both ends of the floor. Carolina can pull the upset with some hard-to-believe shot-making, but I’m not betting on that outlier outcome.