Heat Check Herald: The Blue Bloodiest Final Four ever featuring K’s last ride, Hubert’s Heels turnaround + ‘Nova-Kansas part 3
Final Fours like this one don’t come around often. Hyperbolic statements are the norm now but with every program heading to New Orleans with at least three national championships in their resumé, it’s hard to imagine two national semifinal games packed with more intriguing storylines.
The payoff of a historically great set of Final Four matchups came at the expense of an Elite Eight that kind of sucked. Because of earlier upsets provided by Saint Peter’s and Arkansas — comparing those two programs as upsets seems wrong but is applicable here — we wound up with multiple regional finals that were less-than-stellar games. Instead of getting Gonzaga v. Duke or North Carolina v. Purdue we got the first ever 15 seed to make an Elite Eight and the Muss Buss eliminating the Zags.
So after a weekend slate of four games, none of which were decided by less than six points and two by 20-plus, it’s safe to say that we are deserving of an outstanding Final Four.
Aside from all of the narrative-based storylines, one of the things that makes this Final Four so intriguing basketball-wise is that each of these four teams holds claims to being the best at something or in general for a period of time during this season.
Each of the four teams also can point to one game as somewhat of a black eye on their resumé and a reason there was skepticism about their ability to be successful deep in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, in a year of great chaos and no far-and-away elite team, flawed teams could make the Final Four and we have four flawed, yet interesting teams making it to New Orleans.
When North Carolina lost at home to an atrociously bad Pittsburgh team 76–67 on Feb. 16, no one would have predicted the Tar Heels would finish head coach Hubert Davis’ first season with a trip to New Orleans. Consequently, when Duke dropped the ball during Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and lost to North Carolina 94–81, it appeared the Blue Devils were going to fail to live up to the monumental pressure their head coach put them under by announcing a season-long retirement tour.
Villanova got chance after chance early in the season to take on top 10 teams and failed in each attempt, most notably being held to 36 points in a blowout loss at Baylor in early December. And lastly, the Wildcats opponent Saturday night — the Kansas Jayhawks — were given a beatdown at Allen Fieldhouse by another group of Wildcats, when John Calipari and Kentucky handed them an 80–62 defeat at the end of January.
So, here we go. Finding ways each team in the 2022 Final Four ranks No. 1.
Duke: Offensive efficiency
When Duke took on Texas Tech Thursday night, the offensive display by the Blue Devils was one of the most impressive things of this tournament. I’ve long said throughout this season that Duke was going to rue the fact that their guards have not been consistent when they get to March.
And now that we’ve gotten here, Jeremy Roach is alive. Prior to a nine-point performance to defeat Arkansas in the Elite Eight, Roach had scored in double figures for each of the first three NCAA Tournament games. That’s not something you’d expect to get if you’re Coach K and the Blue Devils, largely because Roach experienced a 14-game stretch in which the second-year guard failed to reach the 10-point threshold.
With 15 points in both the second round matchup with Michigan State and 15 points again to defeat the nation’s best defense, Roach has been the catalyst of a Duke offense which has surpassed Purdue, Gonzaga and Iowa and overtook the No. 1 spot in KenPom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings.
To close out the Sweet 16 game against the Red Raiders, Duke closed the game without missing a shot for the remaining 8:55 of the game. Against the no-middle defense Texas Tech employs, Duke’s offensive efficiency was remarkable and its starters combined for 76 of the 78 points scored.
North Carolina: Best since mid-February
Earlier, I mentioned that North Carolina lost at home by nine points to the Pittsburgh Panthers. Yes, the Jeff Capel-led Pittsburgh squad that went 11–21 this season and lose games to The Citadel, UMBC and Monmouth. No, that game was not played in the first week of January or even before the turn of the calendar, as some major conference leagues embark on their league journey before students return from winter breaks.
The 76–67 loss to the Panthers was actually on February 16th. Since the day after, a time-sensitive filtering of data on BartTorvik.com provides the answer to just how well the Tar Heels have been playing as of late by noting that Davis’ group is 10–1 and actually better on the defensive end (5th) than offensive (19th).
Now, the Tar Heels play the “Iron Five,” and practically refuse to play anyone in the second half whose name is not Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, Leaky Black, Brady Manek or Armando Bacot. It’s a solid group that is hoping to remain effective in the rubber match against the Blue Devils on Saturday night.
During any NCAA Tournament game, we’ve seen a consistent trend for North Carolina. Different players from that group have stepped up and scored in a way necessary to win these games. Here’s the leading scorer breakdown in each of North Carolina’s first four tournament wins:
- Brady Manek first round vs. Marquette: 28 points (10–15 FG, 5–10 3FG), 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks
- R.J. Davis Round of 32 vs. Baylor: 30 points (8–17 FG, 5–10 3FG), 6 assists, 5 rebounds
- Caleb Love Sweet 16 vs. UCLA: 30 points (11–24 FG, 6–13 3FG), 4 assists, 3 rebounds
- Armando Bacot Elite Eight vs. Saint Peter’s: 20 points (8–15 FG), 22 rebounds
In the four tournament games so far they’ve had four different leading scorers. This isn’t a Kemba or Shabazz Napier-like run because the Tar Heels can beat you with four different guys. Duke figuring out who to stop Saturday will be a big deal.
Kansas: Best since end of January
Just as the Tar Heels season turned around, so too did the Jayhawks. When Kentucky visited Lawrence at the end of January, a more athletic group of Wildcats overwhelmed Kansas. The shock to the system of getting bullied on their own floor was significant, but it also signaled a shift for the Jayhawks.
While the group still lost three more times in the 18 games they’ve played since, they’ve done so with a greater confidence. Some of that — as head coach Bill Self alluded to Sunday following a 76–50 Elite Eight win over 10 seed Miami — comes from having super senior guard Remy Martin available and as a significant contributor.
Kansas has been the best team in the country since January 30 according to Torvik. In that time, the Jayhawks have had the sixth-best offense and fourth-best defense.
Having a better defense than offense in that time is a bit of a surprise for a group that was the worst defensive team of the Bill Self era for significant portions of the season. Sunday against the Hurricanes was a big example of the turnaround that Kansas has done on that side of the ball. After allowing 35 points in the first half, the Jayhawks returned from the halftime break with a few tactical changes and a renewed spirit.
Within minutes, the six-point halftime deficit had turned into a lead before the first TV timeout. After the break, Dajuan Harris was asked to face guard Kameron McGusty while the Jayhawks utilized some triangle-and-2 or box-and-1 defensively.
Better defense led to more turnovers — they forced Charlie Moore and Isaiah Wong into six of Miami’s 14 — and allowed Kansas to run in transition and score quickly. It will be hard for the Jayhawks to recreate that turnover success against a Villanova group that has the 12th-fewest turnovers in the nation, but with great first shot defense KU should be able to rebound and run with Jalen Wilson able to initiate the offense when he grabs rebounds.
Villanova: Free throw percentage
There are multiple reasons for why Villanova kind of feels like the tag along feature at this Final Four. From a narrative perspective, people are going to debate the “Blue Blood or New Blood” idea, going back and forth over whether national title wins in 2016 and 2018 added to a title won in1985 is enough to overcome decades of futility.
So to shortly weigh in on that debate, I’ll say two things. First, Villanova is well on its way to becoming well-established as a Blue Blood and the Wildcats have a significantly better argument for being in the elite crew of college basketball than Gonzaga does. With more national titles, a presence as the premier program in a major conference and a strong brand, they should soon be accepted in that category.
Second, any Villanova fan who needs a counterpoint to the haters who will point out the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament for 12 out of 18 years from 1987 to 2004 can point to Steve Lappas as the head coach and blame a decently long stretch of failure on him.
Which brings us to the fact that Villanova’s best-in-the-country free throw percentage is the one thing you can point to heading into the weekend. Sure, they might have the nation’s best point guard (there’s a slim chance Collin Gillespie is the third or fourth best point guard playing in New Orleans this weekend), but without Justin Moore and many expecting them to be the fourth team to the NOLA party, Villanova as a team is most elite at the free throw stripe.
There, they shoot 83 percent, a mark that leads the nation. In fact, Moore — who ruptured his Achilles during the final two minutes of the Elite Eight win over Houston — is the worst free throw shooter of anyone in the Villanova rotation. Four of the top six players in minutes for Jay Wright’s group shoot above 82 percent and Gillespie leads them all at 90.5 percent. If the game is close late, Villanova is a good bet to knock down free throws with the game on the line.