The symbolic intersection of art and basketball

A player from each Final Four team connected their matchup and NCAA Tournament run to popular songs and movies.

Photo by Derrian Carter.

 

Does art imitate life or life imitate art? Whatever the answer, each NCAA men’s Final Four team has embodied pop culture to reach the doorstep of basketball immortality.

Each blue blood matchup is a storybook loaded with drama like Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky 2” or music producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz’s “Verzuz.” The North Carolina Tar Heels will renew its storied rivalry with the Duke Blue Devils for the first time in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, the Kansas Jayhawks seek to avenge their 2018 Final Four loss to the Villanova Wildcats. While they will decide the games on the hardwood, each team’s performance up to this moment composed lyrics and scripts that showcased their journey.

In the 100th game between Duke and North Carolina since the Blue Devils hired coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke leads the series, 50-49. Their rivalry has been historic: the brawl in 1961; UNC’s coach Dean Smith invoking a stall-ball strategy in 1979; Tar Heels Tyler Hansbrough’s bloody face in 2007; Duke’s Zion Williamson ripping through his shoe in 2019.

“When you try to describe this rivalry, (there are) very few things you can use to describe it,” Duke’s forward Wendell Moore Jr. said. “There's so much emotion that goes in every single game (and) so much preparation. It’s really just a legendary rivalry.”

While Moore Jr. struggled to compare the competitiveness, North Carolina’s guard RJ Davis provided a hip-hop song to illustrate it.

“I will say ‘Back Again’ (by) King Von and Prince Dre (featuring) Lil Durk,” Davis said. “I'll probably say that describes the rivalry between us two.”

This song exudes the type of on-sight clash that both teams have when they meet on the court. Both go to tremendous lengths in preparation, motivation, adjustments and play to be the victor. This high-stakes game will add another chapter to this saga.


On the other side of the bracket, Villanova and Kansas will meet for the 10th time. The Wildcats lead the series, 5-4, recently defeating the Jayhawks by one in 2019. Villanova is battle-tested, losing to five ranked teams including three top 10 teams and playing the fewest home games in the Big East this season.


Wildcats guard Caleb Daniels compared their journey to New Orleans to the 2006 sports film “Glory Road.”

Villanova huddling up during open practice.

(Photo by Derrian Carter)


“I feel like in the beginning of the movie they were very separated as a team,” Daniels said. “We were never separated by any means, but we weren’t as close as we are now.

“Throughout the movie, they became closer and closer — each one of the players with the coaches as well. I just feel like now we’re all close like we’re brothers, literally. We’re not like — we are brothers.”

Based on true events, Texas Western College coach Don Haskins built a basketball team based on skill rather than race in the film, which led to the first African American basketball starting lineup winning a national championship in 1966.

Although not divided, Villanova grew from early struggles and entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed in the South region and defeated Delaware, Ohio State, Michigan and Houston to enter the Final Four. The team faces another challenge with its second-leading scorer Justin Moore out, yet the team feels confident in replacing his production against Kansas.

The Jayhawks have struggled to reach the Final Four since 2018, losing to Auburn in 2019 and USC in 2021 — both in the round of 32. Kansas has used these losses to fuel this year’s run.

After defeating Miami (FL) in the Elite Eight, Jayhawks guards Ochai Agbaji and Remy Martin recorded a video of them walking with the Midwest Region Trophy while the instrumental of “Bad Boy for Life”' by Diddy, Black Rob and Mark Curry played. Agbaji and Martin paid homage to NFL’s Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, who did it first in 2019, and the video posted with the caption “we ain’t goin’ nowhere” as both players nodded their hands.

“We weren’t trying to send a message or anything,” Agbaji said. “It was just a fun media post for our fans, basically.”

Although not intended, the video spoke volumes. With the fifth best winning percentage (84.2%) and the 15th ranked scoring margin with +11.1 in the nation, Kansas feels confident it can win their first national championship since 2008.

How will this Final Four be remembered? It’s anyone's guess, but there will indeed be a song or movie that will encapsulate it in these players’ memories forever.

 

Derrian Carter is a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in sports journalism at Arizona State University, who was a part of the 2022 Full Court Press, the sports writing seminar and competition sponsored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Email Derrian at: carter.derrian00@gmail.com.

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