The 2022 men’s NCAA tournament has offered a variety of upsets that have made it one of college basketball’s best postseason events in recent history. Saint Peter’s, a school with just under 3,000 students, made the Elite Eight as a 15-seed. Three of the top seeds (Baylor, Arizona and Gonzaga) were eliminated before the second weekend. The ACC feels three teams to the Elite Eight. The Big Ten had none.
In the end, however, we are left with the blue bloods.
Since the 2007-08 season, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova have claimed seven of the 14 national championships. We’re in for a powerhouse matchup in the title game no matter who wins or loses in the national semifinals on Saturday.
In Mike Krzyzewski’s final season, Duke and North Carolina will meet for the first time in NCAA tournament history, weeks after Hubert Davis’ squad spoiled Coach K’s final regular-season game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Ten years ago, Kansas lost to Kentucky in the national championship game in New Orleans. Bill Self hopes to have more luck in the same building this time. And Jay Wright, leading a team that’s not at 100 percent, will chase his third national title in six years.
The game’s best teams will be at the Superdome. Let’s hope the matches live up to the hype.
2021-22 record: 32-6
Final Four appearances: 17
Championships: 5 (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, 2015)
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (1,202-367)
In the years that preceded his arrival at Duke, Paolo Banchero was hyped as a young force who could dominate college basketball in his freshman year. It’s clear that Banchero’s game has been evolving in real time, too. His continued development as a player this season has been the key to Duke’s run to New Orleans, where the team could send Mike Krzyzewski into retirement with his sixth national championship in a Hollywood finish. Banchero’s versatility has been the catalyst for Duke’s rise — the Blue Devils are 13-2 in their last 15 games — in recent weeks.
He is a threat to score in the paint, on the perimeter and with his midrange game. Opponents have struggled to corral the projected lottery pick. The lobs to Mark Williams, the drives by Jeremy Roach and Wendell Moore Jr. and the space AJ Griffin and Moore Jr. have found in recent outings all stem from the headache Banchero has created for other teams. Per hoop-math.com, 41% of his shots have been at the rim, 34% of his field goal attempts have been jump shots and 26% of his shots have been 3-pointers. Banchero has made 65%, 40% and 33%, respectively, of those shots. In the NCAA tournament, Banchero is 8-for-15 (53%) from beyond the arc.
In New Orleans, Duke will play through his superstar. Banchero’s efforts have changed the Blue Devils during the most critical stage of the season. If the Blue Devils win a national title in Krzyzewski’s final season, it will be because Banchero is the toughest matchup in the Final Four.
Up next: vs. North Carolina (Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS)
2021-22 record: 32-6
Final Four appearances: 16
Championships: 3 (1952, 1988, 2008)
Coach: Bill Self (760-229)
Kansas will go to New Orleans as perhaps the least sexy storyline in the field. With Mike Krzyzewski’s historic Final Four matchup against North Carolina up next in the last season of his career and a Villanova team pushing forward without standout Justin Moore, the lone 1-seed in the national semifinals is somehow under the radar. In a year of Peacocks, top seeds falling short and career-altering runs, there’s nothing magical about the Jayhawks achieving what they were supposed to, it seems.
Which is unfair because they have been the NCAA tournament’s most dominant crew. With Remy Martin (16.7 PPG through four NCAA tournament games) and Ochai Agbaji (18 points in Sunday’s 76-50 win over Miami in the Elite Eight) soaring, Kansas is the most complete outfit in the Final Four.
No team in the NCAA tournament has displayed more stretches of brilliance in the postseason. The Jayhawks had a 47-19 lead at halftime in their first-round win over Texas Southern. Creighton kept the game close in the second round, but Kansas still managed to record 113 points per 100 possessions against the best defensive team in the Big East during the regular season. In the third round, the final five-point margin of victory against Providence masked Kansas’ 24-12 start against Ed Cooley’s squad and the 12-5 run that helped it regain control after the Friars took a 38-37 lead early in the second half. And on Sunday, Kansas outscored Miami — which beat Auburn by 18 points in the second round — 47-15 in the second half to advance to the Final Four.
Add all that to a high-pressure defense that has only allowed opponents to score at a 41.6% clip inside the arc since March 3 (25th in America, per Barttorvik.com), when the Jayhawks’ nine-game winning streak began, and it makes you wonder why more people aren’t picking them to win it all.
Up next: vs. Villanova (Saturday, 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS)
2021-22 record: 28-9
Final Four appearances: 21
Championships: 6 (1957, 1982, 1993, 2005, 2009, 2017)
Coach: Hubert Davis (28-9)
On Saturday, Hubert Davis will lead North Carolina against Duke in one of the truly monumental matchups in Final Four history. The two teams have never met in the NCAA tournament. To have their first meeting in the Final Four in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season is too perfect for a Hollywood script.
But the road to this point matters. Because the Tar Heels aren’t playing North Carolina basketball; they’re playing Hubert Davis basketball. Davis believes a guard should be able to play every position, and he wants versatile big men. It goes against the philosophy Roy Williams employed on his way to three national championships. Williams’ teams finished outside the top 50 in offensive rebounding rate just once in his 18 years at North Carolina.
Davis’ Tar Heels are 84th. But 38.2% of its shot attempts this season — the team has taken 91 3-pointers through its first three NCAA games — were from beyond the tournament arc, an 11% increase from Williams’ final season. Davis has modernized North Carolina basketball in a wild season that will end with a Final Four appearance in his first year as head coach, after a nine-year stint as Williams’ assistant. His system puts Caleb Love (30 points in the Sweet 16 against UCLA), RJ Davis (30 points in the second round against Baylor) and Leaky Black on the perimeter while Armando Bacot (20 points, 22 rebounds against Saint Peter’s in the Elite Eight ) mans the paint and Brady Manek (28 points in the first round against Marquette) floats. Sometimes, Davis will have all five players on the perimeter. That variation has fueled wins over Duke, Baylor and UCLA in recent weeks. North Carolina is a difficult team to guard.
While the Tar Heels might not be the best team in college basketball, they are making the case that they have made the greatest improvement of any team in New Orleans.
Up next: vs. Duke (Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS)
2021-22 record: 30-7
Final Four appearances: 7
Championships: 3 (1985, 2016, 2018)
Coach: Jay Wright (642-281)
There is an unfortunate history of injuries disrupting programs with national-title ambitions. Kenyon Martin’s season-ending injury changed top-ranked Cincinnati’s ceiling in the 2000 NCAA tournament. In 2010, Da’Sean Butler suffered a torn ACL in West Virginia’s Final Four loss to Duke, which would go on to win the national championship that year. Joel Embiid got hurt before Kansas entered the 2014 NCAA tournament.
This is the second year in a row that a major injury could change Villanova’s chances of winning Jay Wright his third national title. Last year, the Wildcats entered the NCAA tournament without Collin Gillespie, who had suffered a season-ending knee injury. This season, it’s Justin Moore (14.8 PPG), who suffered a torn Achilles in his team’s win over Houston in the Elite Eight on Saturday and will be unavailable to play in the Final Four, the team announced Sunday. His teammates seemed to suspect as much when they consoled him on the sidelines after the game. Some of them cried.
Without Moore, however, Villanova is still a contender. Gillespie (15.6 PPG, 41% from the 3-point line) is one of the top players in the country. The Wildcats have never won their national championships under Wright with one player. Their depth fueled those runs. With Moore unavailable, Wright will now turn to Chris Arcidiacono (1.6 PPG) — the brother of 2015-16 standout Ryan Arcidiacono — and Bryan Antoine (1.4 PPG). Wright has also played lineups that moved Caleb Daniels (10.2 PPG) to shooting guard. The Wildcats are the best free throw-shooting team in America. And they will enter the Final Four with top-20 marks in adjusted defensive and offensive efficiency per KenPom.
Without Moore, Villanova isn’t the same team. But it should not be counted out in New Orleans.
Up next: vs. Kansas (Saturday, 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS)