The NCAA men’s tournament was full of surprises and thrills. So, just your typical March Madness. Left remaining at the Final Four is a quartet of college basketball’s traditional powers.
Villanova and Kansas meet in Saturday’s first national semifinalwith the Wildcats seeking their third national title in six tournaments and the Jayhawks hoping to secure their first since 2008.
The second game features Duke and North Carolina in the first tournament matchup between the nearby ACC rivals. As if that wasn’t enough drama, the game will either end the career of Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski or move him one win away from his sixth national championship before retirement.
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Our experts make their picks for both games and for which team will then emerge as national champion Monday:
Kansas vs. Villanova
If Villanova has a weakness, it sure hasn’t shown it. Villanova 78, Kansas 68.
Jay Wright will have this seasoned Wildcats squad ready, but the loss of Justin Moore will be costly. Meanwhile, the emergence of Remy Martin, an Arizona State transfer who can score in bunches, gives coach Bill Self and Kansas an extra weapon at the absolute best time. Kansas 83, Villanova 71.
Villanova is still very dangerous even without Justin Moore, though it’s hard to see how the Wildcats match his missing production. But it’s not like Kansas is a sure thing either, even if the second half against Miami showed what this team can do when really clicking. A complete Villanova roster would have more than enough to take down the Jayhawks. Not sure anymore, though. Kansas 63, Villanova 54.
Much of the focus will be on the Wildcats missing guard Justin Moore, who was lost for the season with an injury late in the regional final. His loss from him is significant for a team that mostly goes six deep, but in a one-game situation it’s manageable against the Jayhawks. Villanova will control pace and slow things down to keep things close. But the size of Kansas center David McCormack will be too much to overcome. Kansas 55, Villanova 51.
Considering the Wildcats began the season 7-4, albeit against a challenging non-conference schedule, the fact that they’ve reached a Final Four is a remarkable feat in itself. But the run ends here. The loss of Justin Moore leaves them with nobody on the bench who can provide reliable minutes. The deeper Jayhawks had a pair of fairly easy games to get here, and that continued momentum will get them to Monday night. Kansas 72, Villanova 63.
A Justin Moore-less Villanova team still gets the edge, if only because Jay Wright is the better coach. Villanova 70, Kansas 62
The Jayhawks will win it on the defensive end, particularly with Justin Moore unavailable for Villanova. As well-coached and sound as Jay Wright’s team is, it’s an almost impossible task to lose such a valuable player and expect them to adjust at such a late stage of the season. Kansas 58, Villanova 55.
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Duke vs. North Carolina
With the exception of those last 10 minutes against Baylor, North Carolina has looked to be, far and away, the best team in the tournament. They’ve already spoiled one of Coach K’s “lasts,” and they’ll be up to do it again in the Final Four. North Carolina 98, Duke 91.
Both of these blue-bloods are hot and this will have the feel of a title game, but the Blue Devils have better offensive weapons and have found their team identity since the last loss to North Carolina, when Coach K’s final home game was spoiled. Duke 84, North Carolina 82 (OT).
Look out for any foul trouble given how these two rivals get almost nothing from the bench. What happens if UNC forward Armando Bacot has to sit on the bench with two early fouls or four fouls in the second half? The same with Duke and Paolo Banchero or Mark Williams. All things being equal, Duke is playing at a higher level and uniting around the goal of handing Coach K one last national championship. Duke 79, NC 66.
No two teams are playing better in the tournament than the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, which sets the stage for a memorable Final Four matchup even if you throw out all the other subplots to the game. The key will be which team can defend better. UNC will look to Brady Manek and Caleb Love to continue their hot shooting in the postseason. Duke’s ability to drive to the basket and open up space for Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams should be the difference. Duke 75, NC 70.
Count me among the skeptics who didn’t think the Blue Devils would get this far after witnessing their level of play at the end of the regular season. But as matters stand now, Duke’s offensive execution is better than anyone else’s among the New Orleans quartet. The Tar Heels will get their share of points and rebounds, but Duke will make the needed plays with the game on the line. Duke 83, North Carolina 79.
This really is the championship game. Both teams are playing their best – and are better than Kansas and Villanova. The Blue Devils aren’t going to let another one get away from them against the Tar Heels. Sure, they want to win for Coach K, but they also want to win for themselves. Duke 88, North Carolina 83.
The ultra-talented Blue Devils have been getting tougher and better with each round of the tournament. Losing to North Carolina at the end of the regular season has come to be a benefit in the postseason – and will help them focus for this third matchup. Duke 76, NC 69.
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The Tar Heels get their revenge for the 2016 championship game against Villanova, and give Hubert Davis his first title in his first season as a coach.
This is a team of destiny and expect the Blue Devils to send off Mike Krzyzewski in style. But that’s merely because this group is playing for themselves at Coach K’s pushing, and found a way to block out the pageantry of the final send-off season.
The magic will continue for Duke to give Coach K a storybook ending to his coaching career. If it’s Duke and Kansas in the championship game, the Blue Devils’ overall talent and ability to score near the basket, on the block and from 3-point range makes them the more dynamic team. This would be No. 6 for Coach K.
The tournament is nothing like the regular season or even the conference tournament. The pressure of a one-and-done situation challenges teams to manage the stress of close games. Duke has done that better than any team left in the field. With their balance of size and athletic ability, the Blue Devils are peaking at the right time and should cut down the nets to provide a perfect ending for Krzyzewski.
Storybook endings are fun – and usually fictional. The fact is Kansas is the deepest team in this foursome, and that will give the Jayhawks an edge. Expect the Blue Devils’ tank to be just about empty after their semifinal encounter with the Tar Heels. It’ll be close for a half, but KU will pull away late.
Let’s be honest. Not many people thought Duke would make it past the first round, much less find its way to the Big Easy, included me. But the Blue Devils have quickly learned how to win in pressure situations. And there’s no better ending for Coach K.
If Duke plays at the same level it has played in the tournament, a national title seems likely. There are no guarantees – it’s still a young team – but the growth has been real. And Mike Krzyzewski walking off with a sixth title and storybook ending to his career is huge motivation for this young group to get it done.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism