The Final Four matchups in the men’s NCAA Tournament are set, with four blue-bloods squaring off with a national title on the line.
No. 1 Kansas will take on No. 2 Villanova (6:09 pm ET, CBS) and No. 2 Duke will face No. 8 North Carolina (8:49 pm ET, CBS) in New Orleans on Saturday.
Each team offers a different story. No. 1Kansas is a favorite based on being the only No. 1 seed to survive, with fellow No. 1s Gonzaga, Arizona and Baylor all falling short. No. 2 Villanova is the most experienced of the four teams, with several five-year seniors and a two-time championship coach in Jay Wright.
No. 2 seed Duke has hit its stride in these NCAAs while trying to send coach Mike Krzyzewski off in style in his final season. And North Carolina is a No. 8 seed but is hardly playing like itas arguably the hottest team in the Final Four.
Which teams will prevail on Saturday to reach the national title game on Monday? A look at the keys to victory for each squad.
No. 1 Kansas vs. #2 Villanova
How the Jayhawks (32-6) have the edge: Kansas has a reliable guard in All-American Ochai Agbaji (18.9 ppg) and a frontcourt presence in big man David McCormack (10.0 ppg). Both are seniors and provide a seasoned inside-out game that’s hard to stop. But it’s the supporting cast – Jalen Wilson, Dajuan Harris, and Christian Braun – in coach Bill Self’s high pick-and-roll offense that often determine how well KU plays as a unit. In an Elite Eight win over Miami, it was Braun’s dunk and three-pointer on back-to-back possessions that fired up the Jayhawks to go from six down at halftime to drubbing the Hurricanes by 26 points.
How the Wildcats (30-7) have the edge: The Experience factor. While the Wildcats are going up against a team with a similar arsenal of experience, the difference about coach Jay Wright’s team is that many of his best players have been playing college basketball for five-plus seasons. Collin Gillespie (15.6 ppg), the two-time Big East player of the year, took advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility due to COVID. So did Jermaine Samuels (11.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Having 23-year-olds on the court in the Final Four can certainly pay dividends in ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet, especially if it’s a close game. One stat that speaks volumes for this group: Villanova leads the nation in free-throw percentage (83%) and put away Houston in the Elite Eight with a perfect 15-for-15 clip.
Kansas’ X-Factor: Remmy Martin. The transfer guard hadn’t been at full strength throughout 2021-22 so his average of 8.6 ppg may be deceiving considering he averaged 19 points a game for the past two seasons at Arizona State. But Martin has come alive in this NCAA Tournament and is arguably Kansas’ most explosive offensive player, spearheading KU with 23 points against Providence in the Sweet 16 and 20 against Creighton in the second round. Coach Bill Self said after an Elite Eight win over Miami that Martin’s play off the bench has given his team an extra gear at just the right time.
Villanova’s X-Factor: Caleb Daniels. One issue this team could run into will be replacing the offense of second leading scorer Justin Moore, who tore his Achilles at the end of Villanova’s Elite Eight win over Houston. That means the senior guard’s offensive production could be a major difference-maker. He’s from New Orleans so the Final Four will be a nice homecoming
Which team reaches the title game? Kansas. With Moore’s injury for Villanova and the emergence of Martin for the Jayhawks, that’s a recipe for Kansas to outplay a Villanova squad that won’t be at the top of its game and reach the program’s first title game since 2012.
No. 2 Duke vs. No. 8 North Carolina
How the Blue Devils (32-6) have the edge: They have the best offense in the country statistically, ranking No. 1 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings. This team has so many weapons, starting with future NBA lottery pick Paolo Banchero (18.5 ppg in NCAA Tournament), who has been playing with a renewed hunger. Every player in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s rotation has seemed to come into their own in this NCAA Tournament, with big man Mark Williams the latest to hit his stride with his interior impact in Duke’s Elite Eight win over Arkansas. Wendell Moore Jr. and AJ Griffin are marksmen from beyond the arc and their three-point shooting has been a difference-maker for the Blue Devils this March.
How the Tar Heels (28-9) have the edge: If North Carolina can control the glass and turn to Armando Bacot like it did in its March 5 road win over Duke, it’ll be in good shape to pull off the upset and reach the national title game. UNC ranks sixth nationally in rebounding margin and it starts with Bacot as a double-double machine. In the Tar Heels’ dominant win over Saint Peter’s, rebounding is where they set the tone. All that said, their backcourt has to play up to par. That means Caleb Love and RJ Davis have to carry over their hot shooting. Love had 30 points in a Sweet 16 win over UCLA, while Davis had 30 in a second-round upset of Baylor.
Duke’s X-Factor: Jeremy Roach. Krzyzewski moved the sophomore guard into the starting lineup at the beginning of the tournament and it’s completely shifted the outlook of this team for the better. With Roach playing with more confidence and displaying takeover abilities in crunch time in wins over Michigan State and Texas Tech (15 points in each), Duke now has a player who can offset UNC’s great backcourt with his own ability.
UNC’s X-Factor: Brady Manek. It took four of UNC’s players scoring over 20 points to pull off their March 5 upset, and Manek’s dagger three-pointers drove many of the momentum shifts that turned in the Tar Heels’ favor. His ejection from him also led to Baylor nearly coming back in a second-round matchup that was likely going to be a blowout had Manek not left – illustrating his importance from him to this team. The Oklahoma transfer is versatile at 6-9 and Duke doesn’t have anyone to match up well with him.
Which team reaches the title game? Duke. There was too much pageantry and distraction in the Blue Devils’ embarrassing loss to their archrival in Coach K’s final home game. But in many ways that adversity, coupled with a poor ACC tournament showing, served as wake-up calls for Duke to find its identity and play its best basketball in this NCAA Tournament. North Carolina is playing excellent. But Duke’s just too good and driven to win it all.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism