(1) Villanova vs. (1) Kansas
- Jim Root
Initial Thoughts: First and foremost, I just want to express my gratitude to the basketball gods that this game is happening. And no, not because we get two 1-seeds in the Final Four – instead, it’s because we get to watch two talented, well-coached teams go at each other in what should be a free-flowing game, mostly devoid of pointless whistles. Neither team relies on free throws to score, and neither defense commits fouls:
Basically, what that chart says is – if this game is somehow overrun with copious calls by hero referees, everyone should rush the court like it’s the damn Alamo and launch the officials out of an 1800's-era cannon. Give us the beautiful, high-level game we deserve!!!
Of course, neither team can afford many fouls, as neither has much of a bench. Villanova ranked 301st in bench minutes played, while Kansas was even more starter-reliant, ranking a paltry 344th. Again - let’s hope this one is settled by the rotation guys who matter.
Kansas squeaked into this game by the grace of a Grayson Allen leaner that danced on the rim like a teasing ballerina, giving everyone nightmares of Allen’s face being a staple in the pantheon of NCAA Tournament buzzer beaters (or maybe that was just me). Alas, it dropped off the rim, and the Jayhawks road the volcanic Malik Newman to an overtime triumph.
Villanova, on the other hand, has yet to win a game in this tournament by less than 12 points. West Virginia and Texas Tech both seemed primed to give the Wildcats a run for their money, but Jay Wright’s calm bunch eventually pulled away in both outings. In what should be another game for the ages, is it too much to hope for to get another ice cold moment like GQ Jay’s stoic “bang” in the 2016 title game?
Villanova on Offense: The Wildcats’ offense is the best in the country, and it’s within shouting distance of 2015 Wisconsin for the best ever in the KenPom era (yes, biased me just wanted to sneak in a mention of that legendary Badgers squad). Villanova’s offense thrives on ball movement, ridiculous three-point shooting, and a cerebral maestro at the helm guiding it all.
Everyone in the Nova rotation except backup big Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree can shoot threes, and six of the eight primary rotation players are at 39% or above from deep. Omari Spellman is crucial to this attack, as his ability to hit 45% of a high volume of threes while competing in the paint and on the glass makes him a matchup nightmare for plodding opposing posts (see: Udoka Azubuike). “Big Doke” will need to track Spellman (or Eric Paschall) all the way to the three-point arc, or Nova will find ways to exploit him, either with their bigs' shooting or freeing Jalen Brunson on ball screens. Kansas almost always plays four perimeter players, but that’s a dangerous game against Villanova, too – lineups featuring all of Brunson, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo, and Mikal Bridges have been absolutely ludicrous together:
Yes, that says they're outscoring teams by 51 points per 100 possessions with that group together. Fifty-one!! Kansas doesn’t have the option of zoning, either – Villanova scored at 1.226ppp against zones this season, which places them in a tidy first place in the entire country - pretty decent.
The last key matchup I want to mention is Brunson vs. whoever KU puts on him – he’s a dynamic scorer and passer, but the difference-maker this tournament has been his elite post-up game. He scores in the 98th percentile on the block, punishing opposing guards who simply aren’t familiar with how to guard in that area. For that reason, Self likely needs to put Lagerald Vick or Marcus Garrett on Brunson (as they offer a little more size), and figure out the rest of the matchups from there. As good a perimeter defender as Devonte’ Graham is, Bowling Ball Brunson will hit lefty half-hooks on him all night long. Even All-Americans Keenan Evans (AP Third Team) and Jevon Carter (AP Second Team, perhaps the country’s best perimeter defender) didn’t have a chance:
Self may need to double in this situation, defending almost the same way he treated Marvin Bagley for Duke. The problem is, though, that Villanova doesn’t have the non-shooters that Duke did from which to double off - and you can bet the Wildcats won't shoot as poorly as they did against Texas Tech (4/24 from deep).
Kansas on Offense: After putting up 85 points on 78 possessions against Duke’s zone, it’s clear Kansas can handle the 2-3 – but I’d bet Devonte’ Graham & Co. are happy to be playing against a more conventional system this time around. The Jayhawks sliced up Clemson’s excellent man-to-man defense for most of their Sweet 16 matchup using their dribble weave and high ball screen action, and their spacing with Svi and Newman lurking around the perimeter is among the best in the country. The Jayhawks scored in the 98th percentile nationally on plays involving pick-and-roll, with Graham and Newman both capable of scoring or distributing. Graham is a true master of the PnR, seeing one pass ahead when a defender leans even slightly the wrong way:
That spacing allows for Azubuike to go to work in the paint, and opponents must be intelligent with where they send double-teams from to avoid getting lit up from the perimeter. Nova typically has terrific rotations on D, and because of Big Doke’s significant size advantage against Spellman/Paschall/Cosby-Roundtree, they’ll be rotating quite a bit. If not, the monstrous KU big man could feast in the paint. He often scores simply based on his excellent positioning and sealing with his giant frame, but he’s plenty capable of bullying smaller defenders too:
Villanova often shows a soft 1-2-2 three-quarter court zone to slow the offense’s tempo, and with Bridges’s octopus arms at the point, it can cause serious issues for teams that are loose with the ball. It’s not meant to trap – just a loose formation to prevent the opponent from walking into a set:
Graham is one of the best lead guards in the country, and KU as a team takes good care of the ball, so Wright likely will only use this to slow the Jayhawk transition attack. There’s some concern here that Svi and Newman would find a few easy corner jumpers off skip passes, too.
Key Factor(s): To me, Jay Wright vs. Bill Self is a total stalemate - both guys are legends with a national title under their belts, and I trust both teams to be fully prepared for this one. Other than the obvious X-factor of which team is "on" from the perimeter, the main key is the center matchup. Both Spellman and Azubuike present major matchup problems for the other, and if one guy is able to decisively outplay his counterpart (and force the opposing coach to make a major adjustment, be it stylistically or through playing time), it will swing the balance of a mostly-even showdown.
Final Predictions: Due to the incredible skill level on the court, the excellent coaching minds roaming the sidelines, and the potential lack of rhythm-killing foul calls (boy, let's hope!), I truly believe this could be the best game of the tournament - yes, better than Duke/Kansas or any of Loyola's thrillers. Both teams should be able to score, and if the perimeter shots are going down on both ends, this could be one for the ages. I think the Wildcats squeak by thanks to having Bridges around to get a key stop when needed late, but it's a wire-to-wire thriller that leaves everyone hyped for Monday night's season finale.