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Final Four Preview: Kansas vs. Villanova

This week, we’ll be doing in-depth previews of both final four matchups. Please also stay tuned for all of our college basketball content on Twitter (@GamblingPodcast, @TheColbyD, @NBAZachBroner). Make sure you check out the Final Four Preview Podcast.

Yesterday, we previewed the matchup between Loyola-Chicago and Michigan. Today, we’ll look at Saturday night’s second game, between the Jayhawks of Kansas and the Wildcats of Villanova.

Fast Facts:

Kansas Jayhawks (1 Seed from the Midwest Region)

  • 31-7 (13-5) Record. 20-16-1 ATS. 4-1 ATS as an underdog. O/U 19-17-1.
  • Won the Big 12 by two games.
  • Big 12 Tournament Champions.
  • Best pre-NCAA tournament wins: Kentucky, West Virginia (3x), Texas Tech.
  • Worst pre-NCAA tournament losses: Washington, Baylor.
  • Head Coach: Bill Self.
  • Leading Scorer: Devonte’ Graham.
  • This is perhaps the best coaching job of Bill Self’s career. For all of the chatter about Kansas’ reign in the Big 12 coming to an end, they are still alive for their third championship of the season.

Villanova Wildcats (1 Seed from the East Region)

  • 34-4 (14-4) Record. 26-12 ATS. 26-12 ATS as a favorite. O/U 25-13-0.
  • Finished second in the Big East.
  • Big East Tournament Champions.
  • Best pre-NCAA tournament wins: Tennessee, Gonzaga, Xavier (2x).
  • Worst pre-NCAA tournament losses: St. John’s, Providence.
  • Head Coach: Jay Wright.
  • Leading Scorer: Jalen Brunson.
  • Highest KenPom-rated offense of the past three years, scoring over 127 points per 100 possessions when adjusted for opponent.

Paths to the Final Four

Kansas (2-2 ATS in the tournament)Kansas’ performance throughout the tournament has been a mixed bag. They struggled not only against Penn but also with closing out Seton Hall and Clemson, both of whom rallied for miraculous late covers against this Kansas team who has been sloppy whenever they’ve had a lead. Their win against Duke in the Elite Eight was arguably the most impressive of the season.

  • Kansas (-13.5) 76, Penn 60. Under 146.
  • Kansas (-4.5) 83, Seton Hall 79. Over 155.
  • Kansas (-5) 80, Clemson 76. Over 143.5.

  • Kansas 85, Duke (-3.5) 81. Over 156.5.

Villanova (4-0 ATS in the tournament): Villanova has looked every bit the part of the best team in America, winning and covering in all four rounds with relative ease. West Virginia pushed them in a way they hadn’t been all pushed all year and this veteran Nova group responded with an extra gear in the second half.

  • Villanova (-22.5) 87, Radford 61. Over 138.5.
  • Villanova (-10.5) 81, Alabama 58. Under 149.

  • Villanova (-5) 90, West Virginia 78. Over 153.
  • Villanova (-6) 71, Texas Tech 59. Under 146.

Editor’s Note: Brunson in the post is so freaking tough, man.

The Matchup

The second Duke-Kansas came to an end, I grabbed my phone and tweeted this:

Judging by the temperature in my pants all week, I’m still pretty damn excited. Kansas is the blue-blood of all blue-bloods, a storied program who is firmly nestled into the pantheon of college basketball. Meanwhile, Villanova is an ascendant member of college basketball’s Mount Rushmore, currently in the midst of one of the greatest runs in college basketball history. They’ve made three Final Fours in the last ten years, have pulled off over 130 wins in the past four years, and haven’t lost back-to-back games in five years! That’s just uncanny stuff from Jay Wright and crew. As compared to the other side of the bracket which features two cinderellas of sorts, this one will feature two #1-seeds and two of the biggest brands in basketball. You’ve also got two Hall of Fame coaches and arguably the two best point guards in America in Brunson and Graham. This one should be a doozy, and yes I still hate Trae Young.

Kansas’ Offense vs. Villanova’s Defense

A couple of weeks ago, this side of the matchup would have felt a whole lot different with Villanova having a clear weakness on the defensive end. But the way the ‘Cats are defending right now renders them a completely different group from the one who allowed 85 to Depaul, 101 to Butler, and 90 to Marquette in successive Big East games. Jay Wright’s team is now defending at close to an elite level, catapulting up to the 13th-ranked unit in America. They’ve now allowed 61, 58, and 59 points in three of their tournament games (and 78 in a ridiculously fast-paced contest against West Virginia that was bound to go over the total), and have proven an ability to win games even on nights when they don’t shoot the basketball well — this is a new level for a team that undeniably had the best offense in the tournament, but also had a strong “live by the three, die by the three” flavor to their approach, which was sure to expose their defensive shortcomings in the case that the three-ball wasn’t falling. Villanova shot just 33% from the floor against Texas Tech, their worst shooting performance since 2015, and yet still won handily covering the spread by six points.

This is a good matchup for Villanova’s man-t0-man scheme in that Kansas doesn’t have the height to force Villanova out of its preferred four-guard lineup. LaGerald Vick, who plays a theoretical “4-man” role for the Jayhawks, stands just 6 foot 5 and doesn’t really have the individual post-game to take advantage of a height mismatch in the post. After all, Nova’s guards are amongst the toughest in America and Brunson, Booth, and Divincenzo have all shown an ability to bang and hang inside with even the most physical opponent. This, however, will be perhaps their toughest assignment yet, going up against a backcourt that seems insistent on making its case as the best in the country.

The success of Devonte’ Graham has been well-documented and well-deserved; he is the consummate college basketball Senior point guard who is perfect for March. On the floor, he is a traditional point who can both distribute and look for his own shot with ease or pressing in either direction. He is a distributor who scores and a scorer who distributes. Graham has increased his points and assists averages every single year and is now deadly from almost any spot on the floor. However, he has been a bit more conservative in driving to the lane now that he has Newman (who’ll we get to in a moment) as his sidekick. Graham attempts 55% of his shots from behind the three-point line, which you don’t mind at all because he shoots it at 39%.

Kansas’ offense, featuring Graham as its leader, is now essentially a four-out, one-in drive-and-kick motion scheme. The four guards have the leeway to try to break down their man off the dribble, getting the defense in rotation and from there it is just pass and kick basketball. The big inside, as the Duke tape will show you, is always ready to catch lobs or play the weak-side role once his man leaves to go help against the dribble-drive. Because Graham, Newman, and Svi Mykhailuk are all elite at both shooting and making quick moves off the dribble, the offense puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on individual defenders to stay in front of their man — if not, this Kansas team just lives off of the dribble-drive opening up options across the floor. Once that first man is beaten, there are so many options in this 4-out scheme: drive hard and hit the weakside big with a lob, drive and kick, drive and kick and swing, etc. Once that first man is broken down off the dribble, they put you through the wringer and have shooting threats everywhere to finish the punishment.

The new element of this team in the tournament, however, and filling the role that Graham had once filled as Frank Mason’s sidekick, is Malik Newman, a twitchy scoring guard who has gone absolutely off in their first four games. Newman has the ultimate green light now and will pull up from anywhere on the court, or clear out his matchup and drive fearlessly to the rack in isolation. Newman is scary, and at this point looks like the more dangerous weapon than Graham because he can not only initiate Kansas’ dribble-drive action but can take the ball all the way to the hoop himself. I know it was against a zone, but look at this play:

Newman’s ability to go all the way to the rack and finish over bigs adds a new element to this Kansas offense. Defenders now can’t just prepare to help, help the helper, and rotate — Newman’s ability to just go ahead and punch it himself introduces a mental calculus that most college players either aren’t athletic enough or smart enough to balance.

Now, this is a fantastic play below by Omari Spellman here as he swats this shit straight down into the ground and has another sweet finish on the other end. But it also goes to show the trust that Villanova’s defensive scheme puts in their veteran guards to stay in front of people off the dribble. Spellman doesn’t come over to help until the last possible second, sticking tight to the threat of the lob until it’s clear that the guard is going up with the ball himself.

I expect Villanova to adopt a similar approach in this game, helping very late in the drive sequence to mitigate Azubuike’s lob threat which is just as potent as the one Konate presented in the West Virginia game. Go back and watch the Newman video just above, though. Dude takes off from the second stripe on the paint… and now all of the sudden Spellman is faced with a much more difficult decision. He would have to help earlier if he does go, and if he tries to hang on until the last possible second, Newman’s quickness in the air makes it almost impossible to maintain verticality. Because of the slightly altered angle (created by the quickness of Kansas’ guards), it will be a foul and, with Newman, likely an and-one. Newman, and Graham to a certain extent, have to be helped towards far earlier in the drive sequence than most guards do because of their athletic ability going up at the rim. Meanwhile, Kansas is also one the best lob-throwing teams in America and Newman, Brunson, and Svi are always looking to throw them, even when driving downhill. It’s such a difficult choice for Jay Wright, who’ll have to work diligently with Spellman all week to ensure that he’s sending help at exactly the perfect time — too early and a lob to Azuibuike is wide open, or too late and Newman has 35 points again.

Of course, the onus isn’t entirely on Villanova’s bigs as his tendency to help late is predicated on the ability of the four guards to hound people defensively without getting beat off the dribble. This is why the explosion of Newman onto the scene makes this chess match between Self and Wright so much more fun. Of course, Villanova will start two bigs and bring Divincenzo off the bench, but this game will almost definitely come down to the four guards vs. the four guards, and Azuibuike vs. Spellman inside. So now, and this is the part I’ve been drooling about all week, we will get Brunson-Bridges-Booth-Divincenzo vs. Graham-Newman-Svi-Vick. It’s four on four squaring up with Azuibuike and Spellman banging inside on both ends. All season long, Jay Wright has called on Booth, Divincenzo, or even Bridges at times to guard the opposing team’s lead guard, which allows Brunson to catch gas on the defensive end, well-deserved given how much he does for them offensively. The only problem with that strategy in this matchup is that there is nowhere to hide Brunson. Graham is still the “lead guard” and initiates most of their offense, so you’d like to have Booth on him. I just don’t think Brunson can guard Newman one-on-one, and he likewise isn’t tall enough to prevent Svi or Vick from shooting right over him. Because of those multiple mismatches, I think Villanova’s best bet is to go chalk with Brunson on Graham and save Booth and Divincenzo (and their five fouls) for alternative minutes on Newman. Especially if Spellman isn’t helping as much in order to keep Azuibuike off the rim, Nova’s guards will have to defend on the perimeter and contest shots without fouling. Bridges and Divincenzo both picked up multiple fouls in the first half against West Virginia’s aggressive guard-play and it almost spelled disaster.

Kansas is the 5th-ranked offense in America for a reason and I expect them to score the basketball as they always do. Their guards are too skilled to be corralled for a full 40 minutes and the threat of the lob prevents those matchups from being anything better than 1-on-1 until the last possible second. The extent to which Nova’s guards can stay in front of people, however, will be crucial because that’s where it all starts and ends in a four-out, one-in offense. The less Graham penetrates, the less open threes for Svi… the less Newman penetrates, the fewer dunks for Azuibuike, etc. Kansas’ offense is predicated off of beating people off the dribble drive and, as such, that singular point of battle will make or break this side of the ballgame. If Nova’s guards can sit down in a stance and handle their matchups, they should be fine. If not, and especially if Kansas gets hot from deep, this could be a long night.

Advantage: Kansas.

Key: Brunson/Booth/Bridges/Divincenzo vs. Graham and Newman. Can Nova’s guards stay in front of people without fouling?

Kansas’ Defense vs. Villanova’ Offense

Talk about a high-powered offensive matchup. Every matchup problem I just referenced in the above section is applicable here, with Nova’s deadly offensive approach being predicated on ball movement and the ability to shoot the basketball. The key difference between Villanova and Kansas on the offensive end is that instead of the 5-man (Spellman) being a lob threat, he’s a threat from the perimeter. This draws opposing bigs away from the basket and really presents a matchup problem for Kansas if they want to play man-to-man. Azuibuike can’t stay in front of Spellman, let alone on the bum knee that’s held him out of action throughout the postseason. Spellman has a legit face-up game that extends out to the three-point line, where he shoots it at an unbelievable 45% clip. He can also up-fake and put the ball on the deck like a guard to beat aggressive closeouts. I like Azubuike’s game a lot but I just don’t see how he can hang on the defensive end in this matchup. Spellman should have a big day if he’s making his threes.

Kansas is, quite frankly, pretty bleh on the defensive end. They rank well on KenPom but their unique lineup really means their ability to defend at a high level comes and goes on a matchup-by-matchup basis. This is perfectly exemplified by two of their tournament games. Against Duke, a super-big team who plays two traditional bigs with three guards almost at all times, Kansas played fantastic defense. Svi, all the credit to him, showed incredible toughness handling Bagley and Azubuike/De Sousa were fine matchups for Carter. Against this big lineup, Kansas showed fantastic creativity, at times doubling off the worst-shooting guard on the floor in order to help Svi inside. I think Kansas really embraced their role as the smaller team, relishing the size disadvantage because it brings out a fun and scrappy feeling on the defensive end. Svi was having fun locking up Bagley because he wasn’t supposed to be able to. However, against a smaller and guard-laden team like Penn, Kansas really struggled to defend at all five positions and had a tougher time downsizing their lineup to match Penn’s skill and quickness than they did upscaling it against Duke’s bigs. And if Penn was a problem, this matchup against Nova is thirty times worse. It’s the best offense of the past three years of college basketball and, much to Kansas’ dismay, will likely never feature a guy taller than 6 foot 9 on the floor.

All five guys for Villanova on the floor will likely be elite 3-point shooters, which destroys Kansas’ ability to go zone in an effort to hide individual matchup problems. The tricky little zones that Kansas has gone to at times this season will probably come out of the woodwork at some point, but Nova’s shooting and offensive intellect should put those to bed quickly. This is just flat-out the best offense in America by any metric or the eye-test. They are extremely unselfish and play without agendas, seamlessly kicking the ball around the perimeter to one another in search of the best shot. All three parts of one possession feed seamlessly into one another as they are elite in all three categories. First, they have four guys who can, at a high level and against almost any defender in America, break their man down off the dribble in order to draw help and get the defensive rotations in motion. Once that happens, they have five guys who are incredibly unselfish and will always look to make the extra pass in order to turn that first tiny advantage of one help defender leaving his man into a larger advantage. With each pass made, Villanova gets just another step ahead of their opponent. And, finally, this is the best three-point shooting team in the history of college basketball and anyone on their team can knock down a contested jumper, let alone the ope ones to which their tremendous passing leads.

Not only is Villanova’s offense beautiful and unselfish, they also have possibly the nation’s best isolation scoring option in Jalen Brunson in the post. Time and time again, when this team has needed a bucket, they invert their offense and put Brunson in the post, allowing him to bide his time before making a play or going up to score. He’s fucking deadly in there, just ask Keenan Evans. If this game gets mucky and it happens to be a rough shooting night, Brunson should have a field day in the post on either Newman or Graham, both of whom can defend but neither of whom can match Brunson’s physicality, especially when it’s combined with patience.

Villanova is the best offensive team I’ve seen in some time and caps it all off by making their free throws. There just aren’t holes to pick at in this team’s offense as they will find a way to get theirs no matter what. I thought West Virginia was playing ’em great defensively and you look up and Nova hung 90 on those boys. Against Texas Tech, they shoot 33% and 17% from deep and still score 71 to win by 12. It’s just special. Kansas can defend but will be faced with the perpetual matchup problem of their bigs trying to guard Villanova’s bigs, who aren’t really bigs. There’s no real way out of this trap, however, as any gimmick that Bill Self tries to throw at these Nova guards will not faze a veteran group who can also shoot the living shit out of every inch of space that a zone defense might give them.

Advantage: Nova, big.

Key: What do Kansas’ bigs do on defense?

Summary and Pick

The subtle clash in styles between two teams who really do play similarly will be exacerbated by the matchup problems created by their different personnel approaches. The guard play on both teams is amongst the best we’ve seen in the 21st century in college basketball. As such, this one comes down to the bigs for me. Nova is put in a bind defensively because Spellman will have to make the incredibly tough decision to either help out his guards and leave open the lob threat, or abandon his guards and hope they can contest shots on their own without fouling. Kansas is put in a bind defensively because their archaically massive big man are not equipped to hang on the floor with Nova’s 5-out spread approach. As long as Nova shoots the ball well, they should have a party on the offensive end. In the end, I think that’s too much for Kansas to make up for even though I expect them to succeed offensively as well. Nova’s three-point shooting is historic and should be the difference here.

It’s gotta be Villanova -5 and a heavy lean on the Over.

 

Zach is currently a law student and loves to write about all things hoops. Follow him on twitter @NBAZachB for all of his articles and daily NBA picks.

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