NEW ORLEANS — This latest men’s Final Four boasts a semifinal so loud it automatically ACTIVATES THE SHIFT KEY.
“It’s perfect,” Kansas guard Christian Braun said here Friday. “We don’t need anyone to talk us up. I feel like we know who we are. We’re Kansas.” It is Kansas, and it is the lone No. 1 seed left in this March Madness, but a reminder always helps.
In spotting the perfection, Braun embodied an old premise about sports and those who play them in front of witnesses: a yearning to be overlooked. What luck, to be overlooked.
Meanwhile, the participants in Duke vs. North Carolina danced the other dance Friday, the one about playing down the circumstances, the one about taking an inflated dirigible of excitement floating above the Superdome and letting out some of the air. There’s even need for that for 75-year-old Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski who, atop facing a rival that resides forever famously eight miles away, must lighten the heaviness of his pending retirement.
So Krzyzewski on Friday went on an unsolicited bender of verbiage that began with, “One thing, before answering anything.” It involved the restructuring of the NCAA. It was calm. It was wise. It was . . . so long it went past soliloquy and bordered upon treatise. It also took up a giant chunk of the allotted interview time that could have centered upon Duke vs. North Carolina, a mission careful Krzyzewski students might have found maybe even intentional.
Navigating the rocky verbal waters, North Carolina senior forward Leaky Black said, “It’s a massive game just because it is a Final Four game. We have been told to look at it as just another game; it just happens to be Duke. I can’t really give you [reporters] what you want with this question” — the truth is hard — “but we all know how big of a game this is. Final Four, Duke vs. North Carolina. It does not get much bigger than this unless it was a championship game. It definitely is a big-time game.”
Technically, it’s a Final Four of kingdoms — Kansas (32-6) vs. Villanova (30-7), then Duke (32-6) vs. North Carolina (28-9) — a hobnobbing quartet crammed with 17 national titles and 61 Final Four berths and with the least-decorated (Villanova) merely the best program of recent years (three of the past six Final Fours, national titles in 2016 and 2018). Realistically, it’s a booming first — the first Duke-North Carolina game in a men’s NCAA tournament — and it’s the threequel of a trilogy everyone avoids discussing.
On Feb. 5, Duke decimated North Carolina, 87-67, as AJ Griffin scored 27 points on 11-for-17 shooting, Paolo Banchero got 13 points and 10 rebounds, Duke shot 57.6 percent, North Carolina’s defense looked like rubble and North Carolina stalwart Armando Bacot shot merely 4 for 10. On March 5, as Krzyzewski coached his last home game to a blush-worthy amount of fanfare, North Carolina decimated Duke, 94-81, as Bacot got 23 points on 10-for-11 shooting, Caleb Love got 22 with 12 for 12 on free throws, RJ Davis got 21, Brady Manek got 20 with 11 rebounds, Duke’s defense looked like rubble and Banchero shot 11 for 26.
North Carolina ruined Duke’s grand occasion, which would make a repeat ruination here pretty much unbearable, Krzyzewski-wise and otherwise.
On either of those nights, it would have landed well beyond far-fetched to say a third meeting would come in the Final Four. (Virginia Tech cleared out both of them in the ACC tournament.) “I would have been like, ‘No way,’ ” Duke big man Mark Williams said, “just off the fact that Duke and Carolina had never played in the [NCAA] tournament. I think they’ve grown as a team. I think we’ve grown as a team. But just … ‘That’ll never happen.’ ”
Now it’s here, everybody’s trying to get here to see it, and it’s happening in a city that is not in a dry county. As first-year North Carolina coach Hubert Davis, who once played for the Tar Heels and six NBA teams, told it: “Caleb [Love] said, ‘Every seat is going to be filled in our game?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Are there going to be people at the open practice [Friday]?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he came back again and said, ‘All these seats are going to be filled during the game?’ I said: ‘Yes, is that okay, because I’m looking to play you a lot of minutes. Are you okay here?’ ”
(In a related matter, Kansas vs. Villanova also will occur.)
“We’re jacked,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said, reassuring all that at least somebody was.
In its hush, Kansas-Villanova brings its own threequel. Villanova clipped Kansas, 64-59, in the 2016 South Region final in Louisville and annihilated Kansas, 95-79, in a 2018 national semifinal in San Antonio. “I get tics whenever I think about it,” Self said of the latter game. “So I remember we started the game off on a 2-0 run. That was about the highlight of that particular game. I actually watched it this week. And they were fabulous. … And I really felt like the team that Villanova had in ’18 was the best college basketball team in the last decade. I really believe that.”
Well, this time, Villanova arrives with a hobble, the cruel injury to junior guard Justin Moore in the final minute of the 50-44 win over Houston in the South Region final. That removed 34.6 minutes per game (first on the team), 14.8 points (second), 4.8 rebounds (third), 2.3 assists (second). On the plus side, opposite Kansas and its excellent guard Ochai Agbaji, at least Villanova excels beyond all others in a huge tournament dynamic: free throw shooting.
Its 83.0 percent average stands a whopping 3.3 percent ahead of the second-place school, Missouri State.
“It is a lot of preparation, a lot of hard work,” said team leader Collin Gillespie, who is at 90.5 this season. “We know that there are going to be games where we might not make free throws but just being consistent in our habits and every time we step up to the line having the same routine, working at it in practices and game repetitions, putting pressure on ourselves in practice. It sounds cliché and boring, but that is really all it is.”
It sounds cliché and boring and quiet, thus perfect.
Then comes the other game.
“I don’t think anything will compare to when the game starts tomorrow with 70,000 people in the stands,” Duke’s Williams said.
“It is definitely bigger [than previously realized],” North Carolina’s Manek said of the rivalry. “It’s not something that you can just experience on TV. It is special, and the games at Carolina, games at Duke, the fans have different energy in the gym. It is nothing I have experienced until this year.”
“I think it’s going to be a storied Final Four,” said Mitch Lightfoot, who plays for, well, Kansas. “Duke and North Carolina playing for the first time in the tournament is special. And then Kansas and Villanova, which is going to be its own sort of rivalry.”
(It will be the quieter one.)