No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 2 Villanova Wildcats
In 16 of his 19 seasons with the Jayhawks, Bill Self has taken his team into the top three of the AP Poll, including eight seasons of reaching the top spot, but the veteran coach only has one National Championship to his name from 2008. While he’s struggled to finish off his seasons and bring home the ultimate trophy, he has never had a better opportunity to cement his legacy as an all-time great than this season.
All nine Kansas players who average eight or more minutes per game have at least three years of college experience. Additionally, Self has the Big 12 Player of the Year and First Team All-American in Ochai Agbaji and the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year in Remy Martin who is finally coming around at just the right time for the Jayhawks. The talent of this team has carried them to the Final Four, but it will be the experience that has to shine if the Jayhawks want to capture the national championship that has eluded their head coach in the past 14 years.
As for the Wildcats, experience is also one of their greatest strengths, but they don’t have nearly the same depth as Kansas, especially with Justin Moore suffering a torn Achilles in the final minutes of their Elite Eight victory over No. 5 Houston. Jay Wright only tends to use six or seven players to begin with, but with Moore going down and the biggest game of the season coming up, he might not choose to use a single substitution
If he doesn’t have to. It’s going to take a legendary performance from Collin Gillespie to get the Cats past Kansas without their best defender and potentially most important player unavailable in New Orleans.
Keys to the game:
The pace of this game could very easily decide who punches their ticket to the National Championship on Monday. Villanova loves to slow the game down and take advantage of each possession with a low turnover rate and the greatest team free-throw percentage of all-time.
On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats will need to figure out how to slow down Martin and Agbaji, but the Kansas offense extends beyond these two stars. David McCormack is an interior force while Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson attack with athleticism from the wing. McCormack is undoubtedly the x-factor, so if the undersized Wildcats can limit his impact, I like their chances to squeak out a victory in what they need to make a slow and ugly game against the fast and flashy Jayhawks.
Score Prediction: No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks 61, No. 2 Villanova Wildcats 59
No. 2 Duke Blue Devils vs. No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels
I don’t think it is a stretch to say that this is the biggest college basketball game, outside of national championships, in the history of the sport. Even if this wasn’t Coach K’s final season, it would be the most important matchup between these bitter rivals in their long history, as it is their first ever contest in the NCAA Tournament. When you add in that the Tar Heels can end his career AND punch a ticket to a national championship as an 8-seed, you are presented with the grandest stage in college basketball history.
Keys to the game:
We’ve seen two very different games between these two teams this season with each team running away with a victory on their rival’s home floor. Duke is all about isolation basketball and will surely attack Brady Manek all night and Paolo Banchero (pictured) will be the one to do it. The answer to this strategy? Let it rain from three and hope the shots keep falling. This methodology worked in Cameron Indoor Stadium and Hubert Davis is going to have to stick with it in New Orleans. Caleb Love, RJ Davis and Manek have all scored 28 or more points in a game this tournament and they might all have to do it again if they want to outscore the Blue Devils and finally end their nemesis’ career one game early.
Score Prediction: No. 2 Duke Blue Devils 88, No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels 80
Potential National Championship Matchup:
#1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. #2 Duke Blue Devils
Two of the most storied programs in the sport will go head-to-head in the national championship, regardless of who wins in the national semifinals. If the favorites are able to hold off the hungry underdogs on Saturday, the Jayhawks and Blue Devils will face off in one of the most anticipated title games in the 21st century. It has been 31 years since Coach K won his first title against Kansas in a Final Four that also featured the Tar Heels.
31 years later, the legendary coach can capture his sixth and final championship against the team he defeated to win his first. It is, nauseatingly at times, written in the stars for Krzyzewski to experience the fairytale ending that it seems only Duke fans want for him. Regardless of who wants what or what is fair, Coach K and the most talented team in the sport are two wins away from the most talked about national championship in the history of college athletics.
Keys to the Game:
McCormack and Mark Williams are the x-factors for their respective teams and whoever dominates in the post will give their team a significant advantage to cut down the nets. The Blue Devils are at their best when they are getting to the basket and if the Jayhawks don’t keep them out of the lane, they won’t have a chance with how talented and physical the future first-round picks are in the lane.
The Blue Devil defense is vulnerable from the perimeter and Bill Self has plenty of guys who can knock down these perimeter shots to put pressure on the young Devils. The easiest way to counter the talent of Duke is to simply outscore them and outshoot them, which the Jayhawks can pull off with a player of the year candidate in Agbaji and a terrific supporting cast around him.
Score Prediction: No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks 82, No. 2 Duke Blue Devils 86