This just might be the best game of the year.
After historic upsets in the early rounds, four teams remain: 1-seeds Kansas and Villanova, 3-seed Michigan, and 11-seed Loyola-Chicago. It seems more like a game of “Which one of these is not like the others?” than anything else, really.
That’s just how March is. It’s why we love it. But after all this craziness, it may seem predictable or boring that top-seeded Kansas and Villanova are meeting in the Final Four. I assure you, though, what we are about to witness on Saturday will be far from boring. It may be the best basketball we’ll see all season.
How they got here
Villanova: After trailing 9-1 early to the 3-seed Texas Tech Red Raiders, the Wildcats took the lead with 11 minutes left in the first half and never relinquished it. However, the final score of 71-59 is not indicative of the day the Wildcats had. Coming up against the third-best defense in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom, they shot just 33 percent from the field and a deplorable 4-of-24 from deep. For the first time in the tournament, they did not have any player score more than 15 points. This was not the usual offensive outing for the highest-scoring team in college basketball (86.6 ppg).
The difference? Defense and rebounding. The Wildcats held the Red Raiders to 33 percent shooting while outrebounding them 51-33, and adding six steals and four blocks. Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall dominated down low and made up for their sluggish offense with athleticism and aggressiveness in the post.
Coming up against Kansas, the Wildcat offense will look to find its groove again, like in its three games prior to the Elite Eight. Against Radford and West Virginia, it shot over 50 percent from three. Against Alabama, it still shot 42 percent, no low mark. This is a high-powered offense led by Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, and that won’t change against the Jayhawks on Saturday.
Throughout the tournament, the Wildcat defense has been surprisingly consistent. It’s held its four opponents to an average of 64 points per game and tallied 4.75 blocks per game. Although the offense wins most of their games, their defense has contributed greatly to their wide margins of victory in the tournament thus far.
Kansas: Against Duke on Sunday in the Elite Eight, the Jayhawks were down three with 36 seconds left in the second half. Then, Svi Mykhailiuk drained a clutch three on an acrobatic assist from Devonte’ Graham to send the game to overtime. What else is new.
In overtime, Malik Newman scored all 13 of Kansas’ points to lead the Jayhawks to the Final Four. Those 13 points in the extra five minutes gave Newman 32 points for the game. The most impressive part of their win (other than Newman’s late-game rampage) was the Jayhawks’ containment of Duke’s NBA prospects Wendell Carter, Jr. and Marvin Bagley III in the post. The Blue Devil big boys combined for just 26 points and 12 rebounds, their lowest combined scoring and rebounding effort of the tournament.
Unlike Villanova, Kansas has played close games up to this point. After the first round in which they defeated Penn by 16, they’ve won by just four points each game. Their defense doesn’t quite match up to their offense, which is the fifth-most efficient in the country and sixth-highest in effective field goal percentage. They’ve shot the three exceptionally well in the tournament and will need to do so to have a chance against Villanova.
Overall, Kansas has just found ways to win so far. They’ve been outrebounded in two of their four games, but their veteran offense led by Graham and Mylhailiuk (with help from Newman against Duke) has helped this squad survive.
Donte DiVincenzo, Guard, Villanova: If it’s one thing we’ve learned from this sharpshooter, it’s that he can go off at any time. The Wildcats just hope he goes off at the right time on Saturday. When DiVincenzo is feeling it, he’s virtually unstoppable. Against Alabama in the Round of 32, DiVincenzo hit five threes … all in the first half. As you’ll see below, he has one of the quickest releases in the country and is not afraid to shoot contested shots. Give him space, and you’ll pay for it.
DiVincenzo averages 12.9 points per game and shoots the three at nearly 39 percent. Most likely, Kansas will be game-planning to shut down Bridges and Brunson, so DiVincenzo should have some space to work with. If he can capitalize on those potential extra shots, the Wildcats could run away with this one. DiVincenzo has the ability to completely change this game. If he makes his shots early, he’ll open up better shots for his teammates, and that’s something Kansas can’t let happen. Watch out for number 10 on Saturday.
Malik Newman, Guard, Kansas: Newman is finally living up to his status as a McDonald’s All-American, and his timing is impeccable. He’s averaging almost 22 points per game in the tournament, nearly eight points above his season average. He’s also been red-hot from three-point range, draining 45 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
With a 28-point effort against Seton Hall in the second round, and 32 against Duke in the Elite Eight (including his solo 13-point run in overtime), Newman has been a savior to the Jayhawks, and they’ll need him Saturday more than ever.
Newman’s been unstoppable so far. Because he’s draining threes everywhere, he’s also given himself the opportunity to blow by defenders and get to the rim, like in the video above. His three-point dominance has given his shot fake more credibility, and he’s clearly playing with the right amount of confidence. Kansas also sets his up well, with cross-court screens and dribble-drive penetration, opening even more shots for the outstanding sophomore. If Newman continues to play the way he’s been playing, Villanova will have too many top-tier shooters to defend. He’s been the man for the Jayhawks so far, and he’ll need to do it again on Saturday.
How Villanova Wins
The Wildcats don’t need luck. But, if they want to play in the title, they’ll have to quickly forget their struggles on offense against the Red Raiders. Shooting 33 percent overall and 16 percent from three won’t be enough against a talented Kansas team, and they’re lucky the offense was a season-long weakness for the Red Raiders.
Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson have to play to their potential. They combine for an average of 37 ppg, and they’ve done that in the tournament, except against Texas Tech. They’re going to need to run the Villanova offense against athletic defenders like Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman. If the Wildcats can get help from DiVincenzo’s outside shooting, their guard play will be golden.
However, down low, 6‘9” forwards Spellman and Paschall will need to play tough against Kansas’ 7‘0” center Udoka Azubuike and 6‘8” forward Silvio De Sousa, who’s played more minutes for the Jayhawks recently. If the Wildcats can defend down low, they’ll still need an answer for Devonte’ Graham, but Brunson and Bridges have shown to be capable defenders all season long.
In the end, Nova has the second-highest effective field goal percentage in the country and is top-10 in free throws. If the Wildcats play their game, they will take down the Jayhawks and find themselves in their second title game in three years.
How Kansas Wins
Player of the Year candidate and point guard extraordinaire, Graham needs to have a great game for Kansas. After shooting over 40 percent from deep all season, he’s cooled off in the tournament, going just 8-for-25.
Graham is the center of the Kansas offense, and while he’s still distributing the ball very well, his team needs him to score if they want to play for a ring. With the help of Mykhailiuk and Newman, Graham will not bear all the pressure, but he’s the clear senior leader on this team.
The Jayhawks’ defense is not anything to write home about, which will be a problem against the Wildcats. They’ll need to slow down Bridges and Brunson on defense, which is something few teams have done all year. Azabuike must make his presence felt inside, clogging the lane to prevent Villanova from setting up in the post. Every single Wildcat starter plays well in the post, especially the 6‘3” Brunson. The Jayhawks need to exploit Azabuike’s size down low.
If they want to advance, they’ll also need to use Azabuike on offense. He averages 13 points and seven rebounds per game, and he’ll need to grab even more rebounds to keep the ball away from the Wildcat offense.
Finally, Newman and Mykhailiuk have to shoot like they usually do, over 40 percent from deep. If Kansas can screen and get open threes, they have a shot to keep up with the Wildcats. If they miss their open looks, or even worse, if they can’t get open looks, the Jayhawks will be in trouble. They have to pray for the Villanova defense to collapse. Even then, it’ll be tough to keep up with the Wildcats.
This will be a great game. Two veteran POY candidate point guards dueling it out for a shot at the title game: what could be better? In the end, though, I think the Wildcats will be too much for the Jayhawks. Nova finds ways to score no matter what, and Kansas lacks defensive cohesiveness and identity in the paint. Oh, and Azabuike shoots 41 percent from the free throw line. Wildcats by a score of 81-74.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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