Kansas vs. Villanova is overshadowed by Duke vs. UNC at Final Four, but would get top billing any other year

NEW ORLEANS – At 9:21 Thursday morning The Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street was empty, but certainly not closed. This is the French Quarter known for, among other things, bars that never close.

“We stay open as late as there’s business,” said Trish Wilson, the lone bartender at the establishment at the corner of Bourbon Street and Bienville that has been serving patrons since 1807.

Wilson has been in her current job for 22 years. That would include slinging drinks during two of the five Final Fours played in this town (2003, 2012). She has seen Super Bowls, college bowl games, Mardi Gras and random weekend nights when a carpet salesman from Akron can get blasted in a place that once served pirates.

Football is more of her thing but at this moment at this place in this city Wilson is as good a person to ask about this Final Four that, in terms of hype, might as well be the Terrific Two.

“I think Duke’s in it,” Wilson guessed when asked.

Reminded that North Carolina is the opposition Wilson added, “I don’t know the other two … Is there someone from Texas?”

Uh, no. That’s where we are two days from tipoff from one of the most anticipated Final Fours in recent memory. It is at least one of the most royal. Four bluebloods who – to accentuate the point — actually have blue as a team color.

But to those even slightly aware of the proceedings the Duke-Carolina semifinal resonates. To the point that Saturday’s first semifinal between Villanova and Kansas almost seems like an undercard.

“The undercard here would get more attention than anything we’ve ever had before,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said Thursday. “I don’t look at it that way at all. The majority of the attention and probably rightfully so would be on the second game because it’s Duke-Carolina. Coach K’s last game and all those things. We’re fired up. I don’t think anybody here is flying under any radar.”

Only Duke-Carolina could upstage a national semifinal that features Kansas in its 16th Final Four and Villanova in its seventh. Five of those have come since 1985. Wildcats Coach Jay Wright won two championships in three years (2016, 2018).

“We never aspire to be one of those programs,” Wright said of Duke and Carolina. “We fight the urge to try to be like them, because we’re just so different. Be the best Villanova we can be. But when people on the outside connect us to them or count us as part of their legacy and tradition, we have a lot of respect for them.”

Self is already a hall of fame coach coming off his 16th regular-season conference title at Kansas. He started his career at KU as a grad assistant under Larry Brown in 1985 and 1986.

“I saw first-hand what it could be like there,” Self said. “I’m the caretaker of the most historic program that’s ever been. It does mean something extra when you stop and think about [James] Naismith, [Phog] Allen, [Adolph] Rupp and [Wilt] Chamberlain.”

All of it makes this a Final Four that’s one to drool over.

“I don’t know that too many people are talking about [Villanova] and Kansas right now,” Self told reporters. “And that’s great, for me personally. But I think that this could be as anticipated and as well attended and as much watched as maybe any Final Four ever.”

On Canal Street Thursday, members of the North Carolina band were well aware of the implications. Tar Heels everywhere already have a lifetime memento tucked away in the recesses of the happy part of their brain. In what was supposed to be Mike Krzyzewski’s last game against North Carolina, Duke lost 94-81 on March 5.

In a saddened postgame, Krzyzewksi proclaimed, “Today was unacceptable…”

T-shirts immediately popped up on the North Carolina campus reading, “94-81, Acceptable.”

“I feel like we have nothing to lose,” said UNC senior Jennings Dixon, one of those band members, from Raleigh, NC “Duke has everything to lose. We’re going into it having fun. I think Duke should be scared. Even if they are, that’s great.”

There’s something to that. Hubert Davis is in his first year replacing Roy Williams as coach of the Tar Heels. He has the rest of his life to carve out a legacy. It would be a nice to start to hand Coach K losses in his last two meetings with the Tar Heels.

“I get that we have a skewed perspective because we live seven miles from our opponent,” said Eric Montross, former Carolina two-time All-American and color analyst on its broadcast for the last 17 years. “We hear it all year long. For nine months out of the year it’s Carolina-Duke. Now it’s just extended into this venue.

“I’ve been here. I’ve played in these Final Fours. You get here and there is no undercard. The national media, the fans, may have that impression. For those who have played in the moment, this is the pinnacle .”

A pinnacle that, for the loser, will be devastating. Kansas has its own revenge motive. The Wildcats blew out the Jayhawks 95-79 in the 2018 Final Four. Kansas had a rich history with Duke and Carolina, and vice versa. Roy Williams coached at both KU and Carolina. KU and Duke have met 13 times, all with Krzyzewski coaching. Duke beat Kansas for the 1991 national championship in Williams first Final Four.

What are the odds that Carolina and Duke, who have met 257 times but never in the tournament. Davis was at a Boy Scout meeting in 1982 when the Tar Heels won the first of two national championships in this city. The next came in 1993 when Davis was in the NBA.

“I remember feeling two powerful emotions,” Davis said. “Joy and happiness because they won, but also sadness because I wanted to be there.”

Davis was at Williams’ side in 2017 when Carolina last won it all. But that’s different. He was an assistant coach then. Before his first day of practice as keeper of the North Carolina flame he posted a picture of the Superdome in the players’ lockers.

And then there’s the Krzyzewski farewell tour that seems to hover over this entire Final Four. Former Providence Coach Pete Gillen once famously said, “Duke is Duke. They’re on TV more than Leave It To Beaver reruns.” The K goodbye that has been never-ending could provide one of the sport’s best endings. That would be with Krzyzewski winning it all in his final game solidifying his place as perhaps the game’s greatest coach.

“That’s why I want to play Duke and beat them,” said Kansas superfan Don Pfannenstiel, Class of 1974. “There’s too much attention on Krzyzewski. Good grievance. That’s all I hear.”

Did someone say great year? Pfannenstiel has committed to memory all 16 of Bill Self’s home losses in the coach’s 19 years at KU. But why dwell on the negative? Kansas’ season turned around after the last of those losses, to Kentucky on Jan. 28. Since then, the Jayhawks are 15-3 with all the losses on the road.

A friend told Pfannenstiel, “It’s a fix. They want Duke to win.” No word on who “they” is, but it is known that the friend is a Missouri grad. So disregard that conspiracy theory entirely.

Maybe the overriding theme for this Final Four should be New Orleans itself. It has survived hurricanes, COVID-19 and keeps bouncing back.

“The Final Four in New Orleans is fun because everybody gathers in one place,” Pfannenstiel said. “After the game, you know where everybody is going to be. They’re going to be in the French Quarter on Bourbon Street.”

When you’re there, ask for Trish. She’ll be glad to fill your glass and fill you in – as best she can.

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