Photo By: Ben Hershey from Unsplash
This year’s Final Four for men’s college basketball is set, and it may just be the most intriguing slate on paper since 2015’s quartet of Duke, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Kentucky. This year’s matchups feature just about as many “Blue Bloods” as you can muster, with Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova qualifying for the two national semifinals.
(2) Duke Blue Devils vs. (8) North Carolina Tar Heels
Despite having the most storied rivalry in the sport, and located just 10 miles away from each other, these two schools have never met in the NCAA tournament on the men’s side. At the end of his 42nd and final season, Duke’s legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski will at long last get the chance to meet his rivals on the biggest stage. It’s about as picture perfect as you can get.
These two teams faced off twice this year in ACC regular season action, with each team taking a win. Carolina spoiled Coach K’s final game on Duke’s campus at Cameron Indoor Stadium back in early March, in a game where four of the Tar Heels’ five starters put up 20+ points. A month earlier, Duke put up a 20 point thrashing of UNC on the back of a 27-point performance from AJ Griffin.
By this point in the tournament, most teams are staying with a tight rotation of only six or seven players, which won’t be a problem for the Tar Heels. Hubert Davis’ team has been largely carried by their five-man starting unit. Centre Armando Bacot posted a 20-point, 22-rebound performance in the last round against St. Peter’s, but the team can get scoring from elsewhere as well. Starting guard Caleb Love ripped off a 27-point second half in the Sweet Sixteen against UCLA, and there are times where he is genuinely unstoppable at the point of attack while being the teams’ best shooter.
Duke will counter Bacot’s size down low with their own towering centre, Mark Williams. Williams has crazy length, and is without question the best rim protector remaining in the tournament. Most of Duke’s scoring will come from the perimeter, mostly from freshmen Paolo Banchero and the aforementioned Griffin. The Blue Devils have more shooting than Carolina does, and they have a slight edge on depth as well, with the luxury of bringing steady contributor Trevor Keels off the bench to spell the team’s starting guards.
Even if the university names weren’t slapped across the chests of the players’ jerseys, this would be an intriguing matchup; the added rivalry factor, the fact that these teams have never met in the tournament, and that it may be Coach K’s last game, make this the most exciting and anticipated NCAA tournament game of all time.
(1) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (2) Villanova Wildcats
While the matchup on the other side of the bracket isn’t quite as intriguing as Duke-Carolina, these are still two programs with long histories of success and feature a distinct clash of styles. Playing in different conferences, these two teams haven’t met during the 2021-22 regular season.
The big story on the Villanova side is the injury to starting guard Justin Moore. Moore went down with an Achilles tendon injury late in the Elite Eight matchup with Houston, and will obviously be absent for the rest of this tournament. It’s a tough blow for the Wildcats, who rely on Moore as their second leading scorer behind point guard Collin Gillespie. Senior guard Caleb Daniels will slot in off the bench, who is a decent enough replacement, but this certainly affects the team’s depth.
Villanova likes to slow things down and play a halfcourt offense, featuring a lot of post play from their guards and from forward Jermaine Samuels. The Wildcats are the best free throw shooting team in the country, and they take care of the ball well. On the other side, Kansas likes to get out and run, and they have supreme athleticism up and down the roster. The Jayhawks will push the ball up the court off makes and misses, almost always having an outlet man near halfcourt to start the break.
Kansas also has the deepest rotation of any team left in the tournament. They can comfortably play an eight-man lineup with spark plug Remy Martin and energy guys Mitch Lightfoot and Jalen Coleman-Lands off the bench. This could be a factor against a Villanova team that’ll be looking to pound the paint and go at Kansas’ centre David McCormack.
The weak point for Kansas is their point guard play, where Dajuan Harris is solid but not spectacular. Their three starting wings — Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson — is one of the best tandems in the country, all of them being threats off the dribble and from outside.
Final Four action will tip off this Saturday at 6:09 p.m. EST, and the national championship game will be played on Monday, April 4th in New Orleans.