North Carolina ended the miracle run of St. Peters and made sure that they were joining a very impressive group in New Orleans next weekend. North Carolina, Duke, Villanova and Kansas — four of the bluest of the bluebloods, each with a historic pedigrees and national followings — will descend on the Big Easy next weekend for a chance to add another championship banner to their rafters.
Duke will play UNC in an all ACC battle while the Wildcats and Jayhawks will meet again in the Final Four.
“I saw something that Bill Self said about the regional championship game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his Kansas counterpart, “it really is the biggest game a college coach has to coach, because it gets you into the promised land.
“For me to have that, I guess it’s 17 times now, that’s a big-time thing for me. I’m so proud of that,” Krzyzewski said, “that my teams have put us in that position and that’s we’ve won now 13 of them, and whatever happens afterward happens. But it is a heck of a thing. We’ve won a lot in the tournament, and we’ve won a lot of games, but Final Fours are big.”
The Blue Devils locked up their spot on Saturday night when Paolo Banchero and Co. used a big run to put away Arkansas and give the retiring Krzyzewski one last Final Four appearance. It’s the 13th for Coach K, breaking a tie with UCLA’s John Wooden for the most of anybody, and makes 17 in all for the Blue Devils as a program.
One team they’ve never met in the NCAA Tournament: North Carolina. The bitter Atlantic Coast Conference rivals have played 256 times since 1920 yet have never met in the tourney, let alone with a spot in the national title game on the line.
“We knew we were capable of this, and that’s what we’ve worked for since June,” Banchero said. “To finally get to New Orleans and have a chance to play for a national championship is a blessing. I’m just proud of the way we came together.”
Villanova also locked up its trip to the semifinals Saturday when it put away Houston in a low-scoring slugfest. It’s the seventh Final Four trip for the Wildcats, including one from the 1970s that the NCAA forced them to vacate, and gives coach Jay Wright a chance to join rare company by winning his third national championship.
The list that would stand ahead of him? Wooden with 10, Krzyzewski with five and Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp with four.
“It feels great to be going back to the Final Four. It never gets old,” said Wright, whose 2016 team beat Kansas and North Carolina on the way to the title and whose 2018 team beat the Jayhawks again in the Final Four before topping Michigan for the championship. “It is a dream of every player and coach in college basketball. It’s the ultimate.”
While the Jayhawks have had plenty of problems with the Wildcats, they’ve had even more trouble escaping the regional finals over the years. But they had their way with Miami in the second half of their game Sunday in Chicago, relying on their superior speed and athleticism to turn a six-point deficit at the break into a 76-50 blowout.
Now, the Jayhawks — who earlier in the tournament passed Kentucky as the winningest school in Division I basketball — are back to the Final Four for the 16th time, and Self is two wins away from his elusive second title.
Put the three schools already in the Final Four together and they’ve made it an astounding 40 times, and on 11 occasions the Blue Devils, Wildcats or Jayhawks were cutting down the nets on the final night of the NCAA Tournament.
The Tar Heels would only add to that history by earning their 21st Final Four trip with a win over Saint Peter’s on Sunday.
Or perhaps the Peacocks can crash the powerhouse party and take their remarkable run right to the end.