For all the bracket-busting upsets that have brought new Madness to March, this year’s NCAA tournament has still produced a familiar Final Four.
Left standing are four titans of men’s college basketball 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 highway and two shades of blue. Duke and North Carolina have faced one another 257 times in the 102-year history of the rival, but next Saturday in New Orleans they’ll meet in the NCAA tournament for the first time.
On the other side of the bracket are two teams who aren’t traditional rivals but do have recent history against one another. Villanova eliminated Kansas during both of Jay Wright’s title runs, rallying late to edge the Jayhawks in the 2016 Elite Eight before burying them with a barrage of early 3-pointers at the 2018 Final Four.
The dominant storyline next week in New Orleans will be Duke’s quest to send Mike Krzyzewski into retirement with a sixth national championship. A stacked roster laden with future first-round draft picks has always been talented enough to achieve that goal, but the young Blue Devils have come of age in March, erasing late deficits against Michigan State and Texas Tech before outclassing Arkansas.
The memory of its last meeting with North Carolina can only provide Duke with extra motivation leading up to Saturday’s game. It was only 22 days ago that the Tar Heels crashed the party for Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, ruining Duke’s perfectly crafted tribute with 94-81 upset victory.
While Duke has improved since that game, so has North Carolina. A Tar Heels team that was on the NCAA tournament bubble in mid-February has played as well as anyone in the country since then, winning 10 of their last 11 capped by Sunday’s annihilation of 15th-seeded NCAA tournament darling Saint Peter’s.
Fueled by the resurgence of spark plug Remy Martin, Kansas is the NCAA tournament’s lone remaining No. 1 seed, an outcome that bodes well for the Jayhawks if recent history is any indication. The eventual national champion has been a No. 1 seed the past four NCAA tournaments and 11 out of the last 14.
Villanova’s hopes of cutting down the nets for the third time in six years took a massive hit late in Saturday’s win over Houston when the Wildcats lost second-leading scorer Justin Moore to an Achilles tear. Moore's absence will test Villanova's limited guard depth. Sixth man Caleb Daniels would likely step into the starting five and fringe rotation reserves Chris Arcidiacono and Bryan Antoine would see an increase in minutes.
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