It goes without saying.
Okay, I’ll say it anyway… This is going to go down as one of the most historic Final Fours of all time. Between the four teams we have 175 all-time NCAA Tournament appearances, 60 Final Fours, and 17 National Championships (8 by the teams’ current head coach).
And yes, Duke plays North Carolina in the Final Four. As insufferable as the coverage of that event will get, it is still going to be an incredible moment in sports history. Coach K’s final run – Will he avenge the loss in his finale at Cameron Indoor, or will North Carolina defeat “The Devil himself” once and for all?
So much is on the line to put a cap on this wild and incredible season. A season, unlike last year, where we never felt like we understood where it was going. A season that could have ended a number of unbelievable ways, but instead settled on inviting four of college basketball’s greatest programs to compete for a trophy we all deserve for what we’ve been through.
With four more days to digest it all, here’s what I am working on:
This team is coming together at the right time. They didn’t have to sweat it out on Selection Sunday, but people forget the Tar Heels were on the bubble in early March. First year head coach Hubert Davis saw his team get blown out by quality opponents throughout the season, struggle to secure a marquee win, and of course, that head scratching loss at home on 2/16 to a Pittsburgh team that finished the season 11-21.
But since then the perennial ACC powerhouse is 10-1, and their “Iron Five” starters have seemed to figure it out. Not a very deep team, North Carolina has gotten very occasional meaningful bench minutes from only Puff Johnson, Justin McKoy, and Dontrez Styles this tournament.
The starters, however, have been on a tear. Armando Bacot is an absolute animal. Brady Manek has secured himself as the heart and soul of this team. The guards have struggled much of this season, but Caleb Love has morphed into a bucket getter while R.J. Davis is holding down the fort at the point.
This is not an 8-seed that went on a lucky Final Four run. This is a very talented team that took some time to mesh alongside their new coach. They didn’t ask to play Duke again after shocking the Blue Devils in Coach K’s last game at Cameron Indoor, but if the UNC kids aren’t motivated for this one, they’re playing the wrong sport.
What it all boils down to: If the starting five can stay in the game, and keep their head on their shoulders they’ve got a shot. If they panic like they have earlier in the season, they’ll be bounced before they can say “Krzyzewski”.
Did we mention Duke is playing their rival North Carolina in the Final Four? The Blue Devils are undoubtedly the most talented team left in the Tournament, and they have proved it so far.
Freshman-trio Paolo Banchero, A.J. Griffin, and Trevor Keels would like a word with the all-time-touted Williamson, Barrett, Reddish group from a few years ago. These guys are going to get theirs. But the key to this year’s run has been the outstanding post play of Mark Williams on both sides of the ball, the rise of Jeremy Roach, and the combination of leadership and skill that Wendell Moore Jr. has brought all season.
Looking at the roster, they seem unstoppable, but Coach K’s Farewell Tour has been anything but perfect. Anti-climactically, Duke slipped at Ohio State after a hot start, and proceeded to lose 5 times in the weak ACC conference. Couple that with a loss to UNC in K’s home finale, and the Devils are clearly determined to finish this season on a strong note.
It hasn’t been a cakewalk, as Michigan State and Texas Tech nearly got the best of them, but the handed win over Arkansas was a good sign for a team that came into the season with lofty expectations.
What it all boils down to: I don’t need to tell you how motivated Carolina is going to be. They are going to come into New Orleans prepared to watch heads roll. I said it before, though: This is the most talented team in the Final Four. The championship belongs to the Duke Blue Devils if they want it. The young guys need to tune out the weight of the moment. The old guys need to go out and make history.
If North Carolina’s depth can be likened to a kiddie pool, Villanova is a dog bowl. With Justin Moore’s devastating injury, a team that usually only plays six-deep is going to have to find minutes somewhere. It certainly helps that a young man named “Arcidiacono” will likely eat those up.
Outside of the depth concerns, this is a good old-fashioned Villanova team that has been contending for championships regularly the past decade. Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, and Brandon Slater (as well as Justin Moore) have played A TON of games together. It’s an experienced bunch of winners who can score and defend in a myriad of ways. They take and make the three with regularity, but it is difficult to keep Gillespie, Samuels and company away from the bucket.
Jay Wright has done a great job with this team, which looked shaky in a few efforts to start the season. The Wildcats – arriving in New Orleans with the least Final Four appearances of any of this year’s participants – are extremely well coached and up to the task.
What it all boils down to: No Justin Moore, and a less than 100% Collin Gillespie is no doubt a concern. However, Villanova is one of the toughest teams to get a read on given their style of play. A program that has made a history of developing unlikely heroes will have another chance this weekend, and I would be silly to count them out just yet.
The only #1 seed remaining, yet maybe the least talked about team coming into the final three games of the season. The Jayhawks come in with an Earth-sized chip on their shoulder, as they were the likely favorites coming into what would have been the 2020 NCAA Tournament.
Kansas has a familiar, experienced bunch. Senior Ochai Agbaji has been a top-class scorer this season, but his shooting woes of late have been well-documented. David McCormack is a punishing big man, but does he compare to the bigs of successful Kansas teams’ past (à la Azubuike or Thomas Robinson)? Christian Braun is an all-around stud, Dajuan Harris and Jalen Wilson are just the serviceable starters, at Point Guard and Forward respectively, that a championship team needs.
And how about Remy Martin? The Big 12 preseason player of the year is stuffed with talent but it seemed to have disappeared the back half of the Kansas regular season. Well, it is back, folks. Martin has had a hell of a tournament and has earned his playing time from Bill Self. He is the X-Factor for the Jayhawks coming into the Final Four.
What it all boils down to: The Jayhawks pushed their way impressively through the toughest conference in America. With a team built for a National Championship, Coach Self will assuredly have his boys ready and willing. Surprisingly, Remy Martin has become the “Secret Weapon” that may hold the responsibility of pushing Kansas over the edge to cut down some more nets. They have been going about their business all season with one thing on their mind: Take revenge on Coronavirus for spoiling their 2020 championship run.
Championship Prediction: Kansas 103, Duke 101 in 3OT…Please?