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Move Over, Cinderella: A Blueblood Final Four Is Here, and the Story Lines Are Endless

A chaotic men’s tournament has given way to a final weekend rich in college hoops history and pedigree—and, oh yeah, Duke vs. UNC.

The NCAA tournament has an endearing history of keeping Darwinism at bay for two weeks. Three is another matter. Survival (and advancement) of the fittest remains the immutable law of the latter stages.

Cinderella is always on the clock, and the clock never stops ticking.

Thus we bid fond farewell to the new patron saint of underdogs, Saint Peter’s, perpetrator of three divinely-inspired upsets. The Peacocks raised the ceiling on what a No. 15 seed can do. They didn’t remove the ceiling.

With their elimination Sunday night, we are left with one of the bluebloodiest men’s Final Fours ever. Kansas, North Carolina and Duke are first, third and fourth in all-time victories. North Carolina is in its record 21st men’s Final Four; Duke in its 17th; Kansas in its 16th; Villanova in its seventh (but third in the last six tournaments).

Coach K, Christian Braun, Jermaine Samuels and Armando Bacot

It will be a blueblood men’s Final Four in 2022.

They have a combined 17 NCAA tournament championships. The last time every Final Four program came in having already won at least three national titles? Never. These are serious pedigrees.

There are three Hall of Fame coaches in this Final Four: Mike Krzyzewski of the Blue Devils; Bill Self of the Jayhawks; Jay Wright of the Wildcats. North Carolina Hall of Famer Roy Williams retired last year, and now successor Hubert Davis has fashioned a rather impressive debut season despite considerable early criticism. (Davis and Williams both were in tears at the end of the rout of Saint Peter’s Sunday night.)

Fittingly, this upper-crust affair will feature the first Duke–North Carolina NCAA tournament meeting in the annals of that unsurpassed rivalry. The fact that they are meeting in the Final Four is immense, but that’s just the beginning. They also are meeting with Krzyzewski’s career on the line—Carolina can send him into retirement short of a sixth national title, or he can get a shot at one more. And, one more layer, Duke is trying to avenge the crushing loss the Tar Heels inflicted in Cameron Indoor Stadium March 5 in Coach K’s final home game.

Nobody knew it at the time, but that game served as the springboard for them both to go this far. North Carolina gained confidence; Duke grew out of adversity. If the outcome had been different in Durham, neither might be going to New Orleans.

The Duke–Carolina matchup is such a ridiculous pileup of story lines that Kansas–Villanova is by far the undercard game. It’s merely the last No. 1 seed still playing (the Jayhawks) against the last member of this Final Four to win a national title (the Wildcats in 2018). Those two met in the semifinals in ’18, when a juggernaut Villanova team beat Kansas into an unrecognizable pulp.

New Orleans has a habit of hosting high-wattage Final Fours. Big-name programs, big-name players, big-name coaches, historic moments.

The first, in 1982, saw a freshman named Michael Jordan of North Carolina sink the game-winning shot to beat a freshman named Patrick Ewing of Georgetown. That finally delivered Dean Smith his first national title.

In 1987, Keith Smart made his game-winner to give Indiana its fifth and last national championship. It was Bob Knight’s third and final.

The 1993 affair was perhaps the gold standard in terms of elite programs, with Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Fab Five Michigan—three No. 1 seeds and the Jayhawks a No. 2. Yet the most memorable play was a timeout that Michigan didn’t have, as Smith won his second title.

In 2012, NOLA was the site for a Kentucky–Louisville rivalry semifinal grudge match similar to Heels–Devils, with Kansas and Ohio State meeting in the other semi. Anthony Davis was the ascendant star on that tourney.

Now we have all this.

Who will win? The best path belonged to Kansas earlier in the tournament, and it still does now. The Midwest Region was loaded with frailty in the bottom half of the bracket: No. 2 seed Auburn was an underachiever away from home in the final weeks; No. 3 Wisconsin’s offense is never reliable in the tournament; No. 6 LSU was playing without the fired Will Wade; No. 7 USC was a paper tiger from a top-heavy Pac-12. No wonder 10th seed Miami was the team that came through that flotsam and jetsam to reach the Elite Eight.

Now Kansas catches another break, facing a diminished Villanova team. The Wildcats lost guard Justin Moore—their No. 2 scorer and leader in minutes played per game—to a torn Achilles tendon in the final minute of the South Region title game against Houston.

This is a major blow not just in terms of quality but quantity—Villanova simply doesn’t have enough players. Wright has been playing a six-man rotation, with nobody outside that six averaging even 10 minutes or two points per game. Wright is a masterful coach, but unless he can get something out of former five-star recruit Bryan Antoine (he’s scored just 67 points in three injury-plagued years) it’s hard to see how ’Nova overcomes the loss of Moore.

And Kansas has played lights-out in this tournament. There were some tense moments in the late stages against both Creighton and Providence, but the Jayhawks have trailed for a total of 31 seconds in the final 16 minutes of each of their last four NCAA games.

So not only do the Jayhawks have the biggest advantage on Saturday night, they also stand to be in the best position for the following Monday. Because Duke–Carolina figures to be an epic clash, sucking up all the heat and light in the lead-up and requiring a major effort to win.

In this respect, Krzyzewski could find himself on the other end of the matchup break he received while winning his last title in 2015. That year, Duke blew out Michigan State and awaited the winner of a slobberknocker between Wisconsin and Kentucky. That ended up being the Badgers, who ran out of gas badly in the final eight minutes of the title game.

Although North Carolina is the seeding outlier in this quartet, a No. 8 in with a No. 1 and two No. 2s, nobody on Earth considers the Tar Heels any kind of underdog. Their days of ugly losses came to an end in mid-February, and they’ve won 10 of 11 since then. Guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis have been great in the tournament, as has stretch four Brady Manek and bruising big man Armando Bacot.

But the most talented team remains Duke, which may have as many as five first-round draft picks. Paolo Banchero is playing like someone who wants serious consideration to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft; center Mark Williams has been a low-post force at both ends; and the guard/wing quartet of Wendell Moore Jr., AJ Griffin, Trevor Keels and Jeremy Roach has all played at a high level.

For those still riding the Coach K(arma) train, this is the scenario for you: Duke will win a classic over North Carolina on Saturday, then regroup to defeat Kansas Monday. That would bring Krzyzewski full circle—his first national title in 1991 was the product of a memorable battle with UNLV in the semis and then a win over the Jayhawks in the championship game.

Regardless of how it plays out, the NCAA tournament has done what it almost always does: provided a fertile playground for upsets and long shots, then swept the underdogs aside to make room for the power programs at the end. Darwinism beats Cinderella, again.

More March Madness Coverage:

Duke, Coach K Can Chase a Truly Epic Ending 
Vintage Villanova? Maybe Not. Does It Matter?
Kansas Proves Its Mettle as Highest Seed Left