NEW ORLEANS – This is a sport that seems to cling to its history more fiercely than any other, so much so college basketball can begin an NCAA Tournament that seems to promise nothing but disorder and then produce a Final Four consisting of enduring powers Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Villanova. The most chaotic of all sporting events somehow yields the colleges that gave us Clyde Lovellette, Lennie Rosenbluth, Art Heyman and Howard Porter.
So of course the reduction of this quartet to a couple presents to us a championship game through which the very origin of the sport runs in a direct line: from the inventor of the game, James Naismith, who brought the product of his genius to the Kansas plains just seven years after its founding and became the school’s first coach, to Dean Smith, who played at KU on the school’s 1952 championship team, began his coaching career as a Jayhawks assistant and then became an assistant at North Carolina before being promoted to head coach in 1961 and pushing forward a variety of strategic revolutions.
This long was a sport ruled by the biggest of men, including the Jayhawks’ Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning and the Tar Heels’ Tyler Hansbrough and Bob McAdoo. But even after Denny Crum turned a simple phrase – that March is a “guard’s game” – into a college hoops maxim and the Steph Curry revolution amplified the emphasis on the 3-point shot and perimeter game, teams that win the NCAA Championship almost without exception do it with someone really tall at the center of the activity.
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Whether it’s a role player such as Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu or a star like Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, the position matters. No, it’s essential, whether the player at that spot is a star such as North Carolina’s All-ACC center Armando Bacot, who has more points/rebounds double-doubles this season than anyone who’s ever played at the conference. Or the player may not be a star, like KU’s David McCormack, who has fought through injury to provide the Jayhawks with a post presence essential to their run to Monday night’s championship game.
“Obviously it’s a great matchup in the post. Two unbelievable post players that can rebound the basketball, can score consistently down low in the paint. It’s a big emphasis for us as well as Kansas,” Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis told reporters Sunday. “And it could ultimately come down to the winner of that matchup being the determining factor of who wins the championship.”
And that matchup will happen. Bacot was hurt late in the Duke game Saturday, leaving the court with the limp after stepping on a teammate’s foot but working out the discomfort and returning as soon as possible. He believed the team would lose without him and couldn’t stand the thought; now he says it would require amputation to keep him out of the game. Instead, he spent a lot of Sunday getting treatment: pool work, a compression garment, electronic stimulation. The Heels were planning a limited amount of physical exertion during their Sunday practice, nothing that would tax him.
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“Obviously he’s a little sore,” Davis said. “But he was walking around and feeling good and was very encouraged with the amount of swelling from his ankle sprain. And he’s ready to play tomorrow night.”
The NBA’s increasing reluctance to draft college big men in prominent positions led to this season being dominated, in many ways, by true centers and other baseline-oriented bigs. All-American Kofi Cockburn of Illinois would not have been a collegian in 2021-22 had the league been welcoming to an old-style, low-post center. Same for Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson, who both appeared in the Sweet 16.
Even Bacot went through the pre-draft process last spring before deciding he would be better off to play another season with the Tar Heels.
“I feel like a lot of the things I do – there’s still a place in the league for guys like me,” Bacot told Sporting News. “I bring a lot of effort. I can defend just about every position. I feel like I have good feet. I can protect the rim, rebound, score some.
“This whole tournament has been a huge stage. I feel like my numbers speak for themselves. I feel like I’m the best big in the country and a lot of the things they can do, I can do.”
Bacot has been matched against Sporting News Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky, Dickinson and, on three occasions, Duke’s Mark Williams. He averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds against them. In one game against the Purdue tandem of 6-10 Trevion Williams and, more to the point, 7-4 Zach Edey, he scored just a single basket and got five rebounds.
“That’s a big guy, though,” Bacot said. “Other than that, I’ve done a good job against all the top bigs. So I feel confident in myself.”
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McCormack is a former McDonald’s All-American who has gradually developed, never achieving the stardom that might have been expected and often being doubted by KU fans. But now he prepares to play in college basketball’s biggest game.
A little like Bacot will be Monday night, McCormack has spent most of this season dealing with a nagging foot injury that requires extensive treatment. His commitment to play through that has led to a great deal of praise from coach Bill Self, who called him “our guy” after his 25-point, 9-rebound performance against Villanova.
“I think Dave plays best on the biggest stages,” Mitch Lightfoot, his backup in the KU frontcourt, told The Sporting News. “If you look at this year, he played amazing in our Big 12 regular season-sealing game against Texas on senior night. He played amazing in the championship game of the Big 12 Tournament against Texas Tech. And he played great last night. He plays his best basketball in the games that mean the most.
“He’s been through so much. He’s been drug for some of the stuff that’s happened that hasn’t been his fault. He’s played through injuries. He’s played through anything. He wants to go out there and help us win, and he has helped us win. So just seeing him fight through that shows his character, shows how much Kansas means to him… To the guys, he’s a warrior.”
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There will be other players who matter plenty in this game, but it is not the least bit coincidental to have Bacot and McCormack matched against one other. KU’s ability to protect the rim led to Villanova shooting just 9-of-26 on 3-pointers in the semifinals. Duke turned over the ball just four times against North Carolina but lost numerous possessions by struggling to rebound – it was a 50-41 disparity in favor of the Heels – against Bacot’s strength and quickness.
The two played in the same summer program, Virginia’s Team Loaded, along with Williams of Duke. They really were loaded, no doubt.
“David, I’ve been playing with him since the ninth grade, on and off,” Bacot said. “He’s a great player: he’s athletic, strong, can score over both shoulders, good free throw shooter. So it’s going to be a tough guard. He knows a lot of my tendencies and I know a lot of his. So it’ll be a fun matchup, for sure.”
It’ll make history, for one or the other.