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Kansas Made the Greatest Comeback in National Title Game History Look Easy

The Jayhawks mastered the art of devastating their opponents in short bursts. Now their legacy will live on forever.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re used to players in the NCAA tournament becoming heroes in a matter of seconds—but somehow, there were no game-winning buzzer-beaters in the entire 2022 men’s tournament. (We need to fix that next year.) So instead, Kansas made its legacy in a matter of minutes. With 11 minutes remaining in Monday night’s national championship game, the Jayhawks trailed North Carolina by three points. With 10 minutes left, they led by six after going on a 9-0 run that lasted just 54 seconds:

The headline is that Kansas pulled off the biggest second-half comeback in NCAA men’s championship history, overcoming a 15-point halftime deficit to beat North Carolina 72-69 and take home the program’s first national championship since 2008. But the comeback didn’t even take the whole half. The Jayhawks cut the Tar Heels’ 15-point lead to less than 10 in the first three minutes of the second half. They tied the game with 10:53 left on the clock. If men’s college hoops had quarters, Kansas would’ve erased that 15-point deficit by the end of the third.

It’s often said that basketball is a game of runs. (Seriously, basketball announcers and writers will just say this at random intervals during their days. I said it while ordering a slice of pizza last week. I couldn’t help myself.) In February, the college basketball statistician Evan Miyakawa decided to pair that aphorism with an algorithm, and discovered something that sounds either like a breakthrough or the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard: A team that has more 10-0 runs than its opponent in a given game wins that game 82 percent of the time. It is extremely hard to win if you let your opponent score 10 straight points. Miyakawa termed these runs “kill shots” and began tracking them over this season.

Maybe Monday’s game disproves Miyakawa’s theory: After all, Kansas never had a 10-0 run, just an 8-0 run and a 9-0 run, while UNC had a 16-0 run in the first half. But the story of Kansas’s championship is a monthlong run of runs: From the end of the regular season on, Kansas went on seven runs of at least 10 unanswered points in a span of nine games. It had three such runs in the Big 12 tournament to win the league’s championship and one in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Texas Southern. It had two of these runs in the Elite Eight against Miami, as Kansas outscored the Hurricanes 47-15 in the second half to turn a six-point halftime deficit into a 26-point win. It started its Final Four matchup against Villanova on a 10-0 run and held on for a comfortable 16-point win.

These Kansas runs were perfect storms. Despite racing to a big early lead, North Carolina seemed doomed for most of the second half. The Tar Heels thrive on offensive rebounding, but Kansas lives in transition. UNC’s quest to dominate the offensive glass left it vulnerable to easy transition buckets. The Jayhawks scored eight points off those possessions in the second half alone:

North Carolina was also doomed by its limited depth, as first-year head coach Hubert Davis played his starters for 35-plus minutes in most of the team’s NCAA tournament games. That was compounded by a brutal run of injury luck. Star center Armando Bacot had suffered an ankle injury in the closing minutes of the team’s Final Four win over Duke; he never seemed to be at 100 percent in the title game and re-aggravated the injury in the final minutes Monday. Forward Brady Manek took a massive elbow to the skull early against Kansas, and point guard Caleb Love appeared to tweak his ankle. Reserve guard Puff Johnson—playing in part because of the injuries elsewhere—got hit in the stomach and threw up on the court, a development shown on deeply unenjoyable slow-motion replays on the broadcast. A short bench and varying ailments is not a good recipe for keeping up with Kansas’s up-and-down style. As the championship game reached its waning moments, the Jayhawks felt inevitable.

Kansas entered this tournament as the most consistent program in men’s college basketball in two ways. The first is that it always comes into the event with a great résumé. While other blue bloods like Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina will sprinkle in occasional down seasons, even missing the NCAA tournament in some years, Kansas won 14 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles between 2005 and 2018. It has earned a top-4 seed in every NCAA tournament since 2001. Many felt the Jayhawks were due to be the top overall seed in the 2020 men’s tournament, which was canceled because of COVID.

The other way that Kansas has been consistent is by losing in the NCAA tournament. Despite all those great seasons and all those high seeds, the Jayhawks hadn’t won a national championship since their famous 2008 win over Derrick Rose and Memphis. It’s not like they were choke artists: They made Final Fours, Elite Eights, and even the 2012 national title game. But despite being excellent year after year, Kansas simply wasn’t reaching the mountaintop. The Jayhawks had been on the wrong side of iconic March moments, like Ali Farokhmanesh’s 2010 dagger and Trey Burke’s 2013 overtime buzzer-beater. They had lost to eventual national champions, like Kentucky in 2012 and Villanova in 2016, and had been upset by underdogs like VCU and Wichita State. There wasn’t any reliable trend in Kansas’s NCAA tournament losses. It was just a constant victim of a 68-team single-elimination tournament.

But this Kansas team was built differently than some past ones. Like other blue bloods, Kansas tends to land some of the most sought-after recruits in the country: Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson, Joel Embiid, etc. In the 14 years since their last national title, the Jayhawks have signed 16 players ranked as consensus five-star recruits by 247Sports, and three more are set to arrive in the class of 2022. Somehow, none of those players were part of this championship roster. The Jayhawks’ best players in the tourney were guard Ochai Agbaji and forward David McCormack, the third- and fourth-highest-rated prospects, respectively, in the team’s 2018 class. That crop was headlined by Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson, both of whom left the school by 2020. Kansas’s ongoing NCAA case stems from 2018 violations relating to recruits Billy Preston, who left the program without playing in a single game, and Silvio de Sousa, who transferred and played for UT-Chattanooga this season.

This Kansas team was also consistent in a way that past Kansas teams were not. Seven of the nine Jayhawks who appeared in the national title game were juniors or seniors; the only freshman to appear against UNC was forward K.J. Adams, who took the court for all of three minutes. It feels as if the key to winning national championships in the modern era is roster stability: The Jayhawks are the third straight men’s national champion to have a roster with no five-star recruits but plenty of upperclassmen.

That consistency helped Kansas win the national championship with a rare type of inconsistency: the ability to land knockout blows with devastating scoring runs. Maybe that stems from the defensive cohesion of five players who have spent years playing side by side; maybe the Jayhawks have built an intuitive understanding of how to maximize their teammates’ strengths when they get out on the break. Maybe it’s just the mental fortitude that comes with experience, allowing the Jayhawks to keep their wits about them in their darkest moments, and seize when other teams struggle.

The Jayhawks did not look like the best team for this entire NCAA tournament. They didn’t even look like the best team in the first half of Monday’s game. The Jayhawks’ brilliance sometimes only lasted for a few minutes at a time—but that’s now enough to last for eternity.