The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is down to the Final Four, which unfolds this weekend at one of the great venues in American sports: the Superdome in New Orleans. Every Final Four has subplots, but this one many: Duke and North Carolina staging the sport’s premier rivalry game in a national semifinal, that game coming at the end of Duke boss Mike Krzyzewski’s storied career, Kansas trying to win its second national title in a record 32 straight tournament appearances, and Villanova looking for a third title in seven seasons despite having a thin rotation, no obvious future NBA talent, and an injury to one of the team’s most critical players. There’s a lot going on this year.
It’s also a real best-on-best showcase. North Carolina is a No. 8 seed but has a talent profile that far exceeds that ranking; the Tar Heels are one of the top recruiting brands in college hoops. Duke and Kansas are too, and Villanova has gradually moved in that direction while piling up trophies under coach Jay Wright. Kansas plays Villanova at 6:09 p.m. (EDT) on Saturday, and Duke and Carolina renew their hostilities at 8:49 p.m. (EDT) on the same day. Let’s get to know this year’s participants.
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 25, 2022
The No. 2-seeded Blue Devils are still a recruiting power, and three of their most important contributors (including their best player, forward Paolo Banchero) are five-star true freshmen who ranked among the top 25 players in this year’s rookie class. The relative elder statesmen in the rotation, like sophomore center Mark Williams and junior guard Wendell Moore, were recent blue-chip recruits themselves. Bottom line: There’s a ton of firepower here. The Blue Devils don’t play anyone who outmatches them position-by-position.
In Krzyzewski’s last season before retirement, the offense has been the Blue Devils’ engine. They rank No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and they play an inside-out game with great three-point shooting and an emphasis on taking care of the ball. (Their 15.3 percent turnover rate is one of the best marks in Division I.) On the flip side, the Duke defense is more good than great (46th in adjusted efficiency) and opponents have ripped it apart in a couple of losses, including down the stretch against North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium less than a month ago.
UNC coach Hubert Davis overcome with emotion as his team celebrates a trip to the Final Four:
"I just desperately wanted this for them. I love these guys so much." pic.twitter.com/7ueZOn0eW4
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 27, 2022
The eighth-seeded Heels just put an ungraceful end to the Cinderella run of all Cinderella runs. They annihilated Saint Peter’s, the first-ever 15th seed to ever get past the Sweet 16 in March Madness, in a 69–49 Elite Eight romp that was more lopsided than the score suggests. Hubert Davis has this year’s “peaked at the right time” squad, as UNC was iffy for much of the regular season before turning it on in mid-February and never looking back.
UNC’s upset of Duke at the start of this month showed that big things are possible for the Heels, and now Carolina has to pull off the sequel in one of the biggest rivalry games any college sport has ever staged.
The Heels don’t pressure the ball much, and Duke doesn’t give it away much, so expect Davis to have his team sit back and force Duke to earn buckets around the rim. That’s not a bad proposition when you have an elite defensive center like Armando Bacot, who was dominant in the teams’ last get-together. For UNC, a critical challenge will be finding ways to get star forward Brady Manek good scoring opportunities against an athletic, hellaciously strong Duke frontcourt.
CHRISTIAN BRAUN IS TAKING OVER! 😱🔥
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 27, 2022
The Jayhawks won the national championship in 2008. Since then, they’ve been good, even elite, but they’ve always fallen short in the NCAA tournament. Coach Bill Self is the most consistent winner in the country, and this is his fourth Final Four since taking the reins at KU in 2003. It does feel like the program is overdue to win it all again, and Self currently has the team to do it.
A No. 1 seed, and the highest-rated team left by Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin (fourth overall), Kansas is solid all around and lacks a glaring weakness. Senior guard Ochai Agbaji has become a pure scorer of the highest caliber, and one of the most impressive things about KU’s run through the Midwest region was that the Jayhawks did it without Agbaji really cooking at the level he so often has this year. He has averaged 12.25 points in the NCAA tournament, down from a regular season rate of 18.9, though he had a more typical game with 18 against Miami in the Elite Eight.
Agbaji and wing Christian Braun give KU a dangerous three-point-shooting pair, while grad transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands is often good for one or two threes per game off the bench. Backup guard Remy Martin, also a grad transfer, was outstanding in the regional rounds.
But Kansas’ best chance at success in a semifinal against Villanova might be to wear the Wildcats down inside with center David McCormack, who’s simply a lot bigger than anyone Villanova can put on him.
Third Final Four since 2016 for Villanova and Jay Wright ✌️ pic.twitter.com/BpaCp2Ma4P
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 27, 2022
If not Self, then Jay Wright is the best coach in college basketball. Wright won two national titles in the back half of the 2010s, and he had an astonishingly consistent run of success that spanned two completely different versions of the Big East. He has put a lot of players in the NBA and turned Nova into a recruiting destination.
But in a way, his 2022 team is his best work yet. This is not a deep roster (and, admittedly, the head coach is in charge of recruiting a deep roster). Thanks in part to injuries, the Wildcats have been running out a thin six-man rotation for almost entire games. Despite that, the team has excelled. Villanova earned a No. 2 seed and has so far won each of its tournament games by at least six points—most recently holding Houston to just 44 points in the Elite Eight. Sure, Villanova only scored 50, and guard Justin Moore’s leg injury made the offense look pretty anemic, but even with just five rotation regulars, the Wildcats kept going.
Wright will have to lean heavily on senior Collin Gillespie, Moore’s backcourt mate, and it defies logic to think Nova will be able to win two more games without dipping further into its bench than Wright has lately. Even so, he has demonstrated his ability to work with a limited roster, and that will certainly give his team a chance.
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