Men’s college basketball has a new national champion. The Kansas Jayhawks launched a historic comeback to prevail 72-69 over the North Carolina Tar Heels in Monday night’s final, the school’s fourth national title and second under head coach Bill Self, who also led KU to the 2008 crown. Kansas made history by overcoming the largest halftime deficit ever for a national champion, trailing 40-25 at the break before storming out of the locker room with an 18-6 run that eliminated any notion of a Tar Heels runaway. The previous largest halftime deficit for a champ was 11, attained by the 2001 Duke Blue Devils and 1958 Temple Owls.
With Kansas cutting down the nets to put a bow on the 2021-22 season, ESPN’s team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi took a final look at this historic national championship game, including what went right for Kansas and what went wrong for North Carolina in the second half. The ESPN quartet also reflected on the meaning of the Kansas triumph, of the past five months of college basketball, and also took a look ahead at the personnel the Jayhawks and the Tar Heels have coming back in 2022-23.
What was the No. 1 reason Kansas beat North Carolina?
North Carolina and Kansas came together to give us one of the most thrilling national title games in years. With five minutes to play, Kansas had a 63-61 edge after being down 15 points at halftime. North Carolina’s offensive firepower and defensive pressure had created that cushion going into the break, but Kansas’ offensive efficiency helped it recover and take the lead in the second half. That 10-minute stretch for Kansas at the start of the second half, when it outscored North Carolina 31-10, kept the Tar Heels chasing it until the end of the game. In the final minutes, however, both teams had a chance.
The reason Kansas won this game was because it did to North Carolina what it did to Texas Southern, Providence and Miami in the NCAA tournament, as it went on one of its fabulous game-altering runs. It was a different team in the second half. Leaky Black picked up his fourth foul early, which took pressure off Ochai Agbaji, who had otherwise been hounded by the North Carolina wing. Jalen Wilson got hot after the break, and in general, the Jayhawks found the same gear they hit when they outscored the Hurricanes 45-17 in the second half of their Elite Eight game.
As Kansas rallied, you could see the fatigue affecting North Carolina. Armando Bacot, who turned his ankle in his team’s win over Duke, was limping early in the second half. The Tar Heels were tired of chasing Kansas players off screens and tussling on the block with David McCormack, whose sky hook over Brady Manek gave Kansas a critical three-point lead in the final seconds.
Kansas made 58% of its shots in the second half while UNC connected on just 28%. Throughout the postseason, Kansas was able to elevate to a level that no opponent could match, and the Tar Heels met the same fate.
And so KU hit the button again and joined the 1962-63 Loyola Chicago squad as the only teams to come back from 15-point deficits in the national title game to win, and secure Bill Self’s second national championship. — Medcalf
Was this more of an epic Kansas comeback or an epic North Carolina collapse?
Definitely the former. As bad as the Jayhawks played after their 7-0 opening run, they used every weapon in their arsenal to spin the second half back in their favor. And it’s not as if North Carolina gave it away. Anything but. The Tar Heels made multiple big plays of their own after falling behind late, only to run out of time — and players — in the closing minutes.
In a way, Kansas won the game twice. The fast start might have crippled a lesser opponent, and the second half reversal was championship caliber in every respect. It was an epic turnaround and a fitting end to one of the greatest NCAA tournaments.
Both teams deserve nothing but praise. — Lunardi
What is the historical impact of this game for Kansas and Bill Self?
The Atlanta Braves and manager Bobby Cox won 14 straight NL East titles from 1991-2005. And one World Series. Were they incredible achievers? Or underachievers? And what would multiple titles have meant to their legacy?
The Kansas Jayhawks have been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament an inconceivable nine times (10 if we count the canceled 2020 tourney) under Bill Self — literally half of his tenure in Lawrence. And only once before had they won the final game. Even Self agrees there should have been more trophies.
Monday night, the Jayhawks did what the Braves never could: They earned the fourth national championship in school history — a signature second for their coach — and in the process turned all of those unfulfilled No. 1 seeds into happy accidents.
Winning cures all. One title can be a fluke, but two cements a legacy. Even if Bill Self never wins another game. — Lunardi
Which of these teams is in better shape for next season? Can Kansas become the first back-to-back winner since Florida in 2006-07?
Much of it obviously depends on the NBA draft and the transfer portal. But as it stands, I think Kansas is in slightly better shape. And given the Jayhawks are ranked No. 4 in my Way-Too-Early Top 25 and North Carolina slides in at No. 5, I clearly don’t think there’s a huge gap. While Kansas is expected to lose McCormack, Agbaji, Christian Braun, Remy Martin, Mitch Lightfoot and Jalen Coleman-Lands, Bill Self should return two starters from this season’s team in Dajuan Harris Jr. and Wilson. But the real optimism stems from the incoming recruiting class, a group that features three five-star prospects. Gradey Dick had as good a senior season as anyone in the 2022 class, while MJ Rice is physically ready for college basketball and Ernest Udeh will help anchor the interior. I also think the Jayhawks enter the portal for some help, especially up front.
Meanwhile, North Carolina could be as high as the top-five if Bacot, Caleb Love and R.J. Davis all return to Chapel Hill. Is that overly likely? Probably not. Bacot might have been out the door either way before the NCAA tournament run, while Love’s Kemba Walker impression this month has potentially put him in position to exit to the NBA as well. Black has a super-senior season he can use, but that’s undetermined at this point. So there’s a lot more up in the air for Hubert Davis next season. Regardless, Davis is going to need something from his newcomers, a pair of top-50 prospects in Seth Trimble and Jalen Washington. How big a role they have right off the bat will be determined by whether the current stars stay or go. — Borzello
What will be the most memorable aspect of the 2021-22 college basketball season? How will it be remembered?
We’ll remember that this was, finally, a return to normal, and that the season ended with an incredible run by No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s and a highly entertaining Final Four filled to the brim with bluebloods. The fans came back, and in retrospect we’ll gloss over the fact that there were still games rescheduled or even canceled.
But things really got rolling once we got to March. Shaheen Holloway’s Peacocks made history by stunning Kentucky and becoming the first No. 15 seed ever to reach the Elite Eight. North Carolina made its own amazing run as a No. 8 seed. The Tar Heels ended Mike Krzyzewski’s career in a national semifinal at the Superdome, adding an indelible chapter to that storied rivalry.
Most of all, we’ll remember Kansas overcoming a 15-point halftime deficit and winning the title. The Jayhawks were the lone No. 1 seed among the storied names in New Orleans, and did what it takes to write their name in the history books yet again. — Gasaway