For all the surprises that have brought Madness into March, this year’s NCAA tournament has still produced a familiar Final Four.
There are four titans of men’s college basketball left standing who in their decorated histories have combined for 17 national titles and 61 Final Fours.
On one side of the bracket are two historic rivals separated by 11 miles of road and two shades of blue. Duke and North Carolina have met 257 times in the rival’s 102-year history, but next Saturday in New Orleans they will meet for the first time in the NCAA tournament.
On the other side of the group are two teams that are not traditional rivals but have recent history against each other. Villanova eliminated Kansas during both of Jay Wright’s title runs, coming back late to top the Jayhawks in the 2016 Elite Eight before burying them with a flurry of early 3-pointers in the 2018 Final Four.
The dominant story next week in New Orleans will be Duke’s quest to send Mike Krzyzewski into retirement with a sixth national championship. A roster packed with future first-round draft picks has always had enough talent to accomplish that goal, but the young Blue Devils came of age in March, erasing late deficits against Michigan State and Texas Tech before topping Arkansas. .
The memory of their last meeting with North Carolina can only provide Duke with additional motivation ahead of Saturday’s game. Just 22 days ago the Tar Heels crashed Krzyzewski’s final home game party at Cameron Indoor Stadium, spoiling Duke’s perfectly crafted tribute with a 94-81 upset victory.
While Duke has improved since that game, so has North Carolina. A Tar Heels team that was in the NCAA tournament bubble in mid-February has played as well as any in the country since then, winning 10 of its last 11 games capped by Sunday’s annihilation of the 15th-seeded NCAA tournament, Saint Peter’s.
Buoyed by the resurgence of the Remy Martin spark plug, Kansas is the only remaining No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a result that bodes well for the Jayhawks if recent history is any indication. The eventual national champion has been seeded No. 1 in the last four NCAA tournaments and 11 of the last 14.
Villanova’s hopes of reducing the nets for the third time in six years took a huge hit late in Saturday’s win over Houston when the Wildcats lost second-leading scorer Justin Moore to a torn Achilles tendon. Moore’s absence will test the limited depth of Villanova’s guard. Sixth man Caleb Daniels would likely break into the starting lineup and fringe rotation backups Chris Arcidiacono and Bryan Antoine would see increased minutes.