Are Kansas and Virginia on a crash course to the NCAA title game?


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Nothing is as it seems in the NCAA Tournament and, as those who picked Michigan State can attest, you might as well spin a roulette wheel to to pick your title teams. But an objective look at the 56 games played in the tournament (yes, only seven are left — so depressing) brings us to one incontrovertible fact: Kansas and Virginia are playing the best basketball right now, the only time it matters; and given that they're on opposite sides of the bracket, they look like they're Mad Maxing their way to a meeting in Houston on the night of April 4. 

Can they be stopped? Of course. This is the NCAA Tournament, where a team that lost to Georgia State, Marshall, Louisiana Tech and UAB can work over a tournament favorite in the first round. It's a tournament where a No. 7 and No. 8 seed can meet in a final, or an undefeated team can get to the national semifinals and lose to a lesser team. Favorites lose daily. Forget stone; nothing is written in pencil.

So the better question for KU and UVA is: Will they be stopped?


(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Kansas showed their strength Thursday night, first by keeping their head above water in a poorly played first half, somehow going into halftime against Maryland with a two-point lead instead of an eight-point deficit. Staying in the game when it's not going well is how teams get to stand on that ladder. But more important was this stat line:

Devonte' Graham: 37 minutes, 0-2 FG, 0-1 3PT, 2-3 FT, 3 AST, 5 TO, 2 PTS

In what was, up to that point, the most important game of KU's season, its starting guard laid an egg. Well, to be more accurate, he laid the egg and then had it stolen from him while wildly driving into the lane. This, from the Jayhawks' most improved player, a sophomore who scored the game-winning points in KU's wild, triple-overtime win over Oklahoma, dropped a career-high 27 in the rematch and tied that in the season finale against No. 9 West Virginia. Kansas played three top-10 teams this year. Graham scored or matched a career high in each.


(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

So why is his awful stat line against Maryland so important? It exemplifies the strength of the Jayhawks: Its unbelievable offensive depth that allows a team to survive a horrible game from their electric, big-game guard. Forget survive — Kansas thrived, dropping 79 and winning by 16 on a Maryland team that started the year No. 3 in the country. 

Therein lies the power of Kansas. If Graham falters, junior Wayne Selden can pick up the slack. If Selden struggles, the Jayhawks have Frank Mason to lean on. If Mason has a bad night — well, you get the picture. And then there's Kansas' rock, senior Perry Ellis, who's been around so long there's a legitimate chance he was Wilt Chamberlain's freshman roommate in Lawrence. In his last eight games, Ellis scored 20, 22, 21, 20, 17, 21, 21 and a game-high 27 on Thursday. The Jayhawks, who are on a 17-game winning streak, have had Ellis go for 20+ in 10 of them.


(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

To be fair, KU's Methuselah has had two bad games this season. Still, Kansas won both, the first thanks to 25 from Selden and the second coming when Mason dropped 16. In a sport in which coaches have nightmares about their star having an off night on the wrong night, Kansas makes it easy by not having a star — just four very, very good college basketball players who pick each other up when one happens to be down.

Tony Bennett's pack-line defense has been UVA's star over the past few years. Then, without much warning, the Hoos got an offense to go with that D and parlayed that into a No. 1 seed after beating Villanova, Louisville and North Carolina in the regular season. (They'd lose to UNC in the ACC tournament final, however.) 


(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Two teams remaining have played their 120 minutes of tournament basketball without once ever really feeling like they were in danger of losing. Villanova, which played the most efficient game of the tournament on Thursday, is one. UVA is the other. Friday's night game was a clinic, and I don't mean the cliched use of the word. You could seriously rent out a gym and charge people to come watch a DVR of UVA's first half to see their ball movement, player-maneuvering, smart shots, swarming defense and their patented sense of restrained urgency that makes each possession feel like a mini-battle, one that UVA usually wins en route to victory in the war.

Like Kansas, UVA has upper-class depth in the form of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes. It's the same sort of M.O.; five players are capable of carrying the team, and not in the "anyone can get hot" way but in a legitimate "it's happened all season." If the jumpers are cold, UVA can go inside. But with the way the Hoos move the ball, the shooters don't stay cold for long, not with those open looks.

NCAA Butler Virginia Basketball

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Neither team is guaranteed anything in this tournament beyond playing a game this weekend (though it doesn't hurt that UVA will play a double-digit seed in said game). Given that the best teams usually don't win the tournament and the two best teams almost never meet in the final, history is against a meeting, even at this late stage. But wouldn't it be poetic in this supposedly wide-open year that the season's final game was played by the best two teams around?

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