In the glorious history of the NCAA Tournament as conceived by Hall of Famer Dave Gavitt – with the 64-team bracket that turned this event into a phenomenon – there have been 68 semifinal games played at the Final Four.
Kansas vs. Villanova will be only the 12th in all that time to be contested by two No. 1 seeds.
So what we’ll get when the Jayhawks and Wildcats take the floor at the Alamodome is a rare treat: a game between two teams that have excelled throughout the season. Each had its momentary lapses, and each has surged through March with three consecutive conference tournament victories, and four more in the tournament that matters most.
Final Four matchup:
Kansas vs Villanova
How to watch
The Final Four matchup between Kansas and Villanova will tip at 8:49 p.m. ET. It will air on TBS and can be live-streamed on NCAA(dot)com or the March Madness Live app.
No. 1 Kansas
|Coach: Bill Self, 3 Final Fours, 1 NCAA championship|
|Overall record: 31-7|
|Scoring leader: Devonte’ Graham, 17.2 ppg|
|Rebounding leader: Udoka Azubuike, 7.1 rpg|
|Assists leader: Devonte’ Graham, 7.3 apg|
|Famous non-athlete alum: Actor Don Johnson|
No. 1 Villanova
|Coach: Jay Wright, 3 Final Fours, 1 NCAA championship|
|Overall record: 34-4|
|Scoring leader: Jalen Brunson, 19.2, ppg|
|Rebounding leader: Omari Spellman, 7.8 rpg|
|Assists leader: Jalen Brunson, 4.6 apg|
|Famous non-athlete alum: Playwright David Rabe|
Best individual matchup: Kansas C Udoka Azubuike vs. Villanova C Omari Spellman
It’d be so easy and so obvious to say the battle between All-American point guard Devonte’ Graham of Kansas and Sporting news Player of the Year Jalen Brunson is the one to watch. There is plenty of glamor there. But the game is more likely to be decided by how these two very different big men contend with one another. Azubuike may be the strongest player in Division I basketball, so overpowering that 118 of his 207 baskets this season were dunks. Those fuel a shooting percentage of .772 – 87 percentage points better than the No. 2 player in field goal accuracy. Spellman is a .446 3-point shooter with 62 makes on the season.
When Spellman encountered foul trouble early in Villanova’s second-round game against Alabama, it revealed how dangerously thin the Wildcats are at that position. Spellman has no choice but to be careful in defending the inside. The good news about guarding Azubuike is that if you let him catch it in his preferred space, he’s so overwhelming you might as well get out of the way and allow him to rip off the rim.
Kansas must decide how to contend with Spellman’s ability on the perimeter, and his ability to advance the basketball when given enough space. The Jayhawks believe Azubuike moves his feet well enough to cope with the challenge; he does well in ball screen defense. Few of KU’s Big 12 opponents featured a big man so adept away from the goal. Now, there’s a chance the Jayhawks could get two in three days, were they to win and face Michigan in the final.
Critical coaching decision
Villanova seems likely to be putting Azubuike into pick-and-rolls all evening. KU will have to decide how it wants to defend those situations. It seems unlikely KU would risk foul trouble by trapping. Would KU be bold enough to have him hang back and dare the Wildcats to shoot from deep? Hedge hard and risk foul trouble? Azubuike is the most important player on the floor because there’s no one else like him. KU can sub him out now with Silvio De Sousa, and he’s been terrific all month, but he’s so inexperienced the Jayhawks must be careful with how much work they ask him to .
Most eye-popping stat: 7
If Villanova converts seven 3-pointers at the Final Four – whether in the semifinal against Kansas or, if they’re fortunate, the semi and championship game – the Wildcats will set a new NCAA Division I record for 3-pointers made in a season. The old record was established in 2006-07 by VMI, which played an all-out, uptempo style and hit 442-of-1383 from long distance. That represented 38 percent of the baskets made by the Keydets. Villanova gets just about as much of its offense from long distance.
Get to know: Villanova redshirt junior guard Phil Booth
You should know him well already, because he ws the surprise hero of the 2016 NCAA championship game. When Villanova chose to abandon its customary offensive approach in the final against North Carolina and rely on isolations, it was Booth who best was able to exploit his matchup and wound up with 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field and 6-of-6 from the line. You have an excuse if you’ve forgotten, though, because Booth missed nearly all of the 2016-17 season with an injury, and he has been a quite role player for most of this season and all of this tournament. He also missed seven games at midseason with a broken hand. He still can deliver a scoring outburst when necessary and available; he scored 20 points in a big win over Gonzaga and 21 in the first of two victories over Xavier. But otherwise he functions as a connector and does his job beautifully.
The pick: Villanova
This has been the best team in college basketball from the start of the year, and though Kansas has closed the gap this ought to be another step forward for the Wildcats. Were this game played at the end of February rather than now, they would be an overwhelming choice to win. Kansas is a different team because of shooting guard Malik Newman’s surge. He is averaging 22.7 points in March tournament games, and that has made KU a different team to defend. There isn’t as much pressure on Graham to manufacture opportunities for himself. He can spend a lot of his time running the show. Villanova’s advantage isn’t huge, but its ability to keep the Jayhawks spread on defense should provide driving and shooting opportunities that give the Wildcats the advantage.