Two years after Villanova’s first National Championship in over three decades, the Wildcats are making a return trip to the Lone Star State for their second Final Four in three seasons. Last time around, Nova was the underdog in both of their games before claiming the title on a Kris Jenkins buzzer-beating shot. But this time around, Villanova is already the favorite to cut down the nets on Monday. Crazy what a difference a few short seasons can make.
However, any fan that’s heard Jay Wright talk about the differences between his first Final Four in 2009 and the return in 2016 knows that he doesn’t care about what the odd-makers think or what they did last time around. This is a business trip for the Wildcats, and they’re focused on winning two more games this weekend.
As for who they’ll need to beat in those two games, it really spans the spectrum. Basically, it’s the three types of teams you don’t want to face in a tournament: the perennial Blue Blood, the team on a hot streak, and the Cinderella that’s more substance than slipper. We’ll break them all down as we chart Villanova’s path to a third National Championship.
Seed: #1 in Midwest | Record: 31-7 | KenPom: #8 | Adj. O: #5 | Adj. D: #42
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Kansas is the best offense and the best team overall that Villanova has or will see in this season’s tournament. Both teams rank Top 50 in the country in the percentage of their points that come from beyond the arc, and the JayHawks have a number of shooters that can connect from deep. While the bulk of their minutes are split between six guys (who does that remind you of?), four of them are shooting over 37% from deep on the season and the team is shooting over 40% collectively.
On defense, Kansas isn’t nearly as strong as the other Big 12 teams the Wildcats have already beaten this tournament. But what they’re best at is defending the three point line. Like Nova, they have long guards that can get out and force opponents off the arc. Then they try to funnel teams into their pair of young bigs, freshman Silvio De Sousa and sophomore Udoka Azubuike. They’ll have a size advantage on Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman, but Villanova’s bigs are the more athletic pair.
The biggest issue in this game could end up being how tight the refs call it. While both teams are pretty deep when it comes to top end talent, their rotations are fairly shallow. Both teams have proven they’re capable at playing any tempo, so the fouls could really be one area that could break the game open either way. That said, both teams are Top 30 when it comes to not fouling, so this will probably come down to who can make shots.
Why Villanova Wins: Both of these teams feature efficient and high scoring offenses, and both have a very similar makeup. So similar in fact, that there really isn’t any individual matchups that are too lopsided. The closest is Spellman vs Azubuike, but purely because of the differing styles in play and not because one’s significantly better than the other. Villanova and Kansas simply don’t beat themselves, but rather take advantage of the other team’s mistakes. That said, there are a few areas in which Kansas tends to fall behind the Wildcats.
Despite being a great shooting team (57.7% eFG%, 6th best in the country), Kansas has really struggled this season at the free throw line. To be more specific, Azubuike has really struggled. He’s shooting 41.3% this season from the charity stripe, but has taken the second most free throws on the team. Fortunately for the Jayhawks it hasn’t been as big of an issue during the tournament, he’s shooting 37.5% over the past two weeks but on just eight attempts. He may have a size advantage on the inside, but his inability to shoot free throws will allow the Wildcats to be even more physical and aggressive when defending him inside the arc. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dahmir Cosby-Roundtree gets some increased minutes in this game with the simple instructions, “Don’t let him get a clean shot off”.
The other area Kansas has struggled in this season is defensive rebounding. On the season, they’re giving up over 31% of opponent offensive rebound opportunities. In their last three games that number has jumped up to over 33%, so it’s not something they’ve fixed in the post-season. The Wildcats are coming off a record high 19 offensive rebounds, proving that when their shots aren’t falling they can turn them into second and third opportunities. In a shootout, the team that gets to take more shots will have a clear advantage.
Seed: #3 in West | Record: 32-7 | KenPom: #7 | Adj. O: #31 | Adj. D: #4
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Michigan’s Head Coach Jon Beilein may have a few years on Nova’s Jay Wright, but the two have been seemingly joined at the hip over the last season or two as they climb up the list of most wins for D1 coaches. Currently ranked 52nd and 53rd overall, Wright has just a two game lead on the Wolverines head coach. Head to head, they’re 4-4 against each other, with Wright winning the lone meeting in their current positions three years ago.
The point is, Beilein is a hell of a coach. He’s always been known for putting together great offensive teams, but this season his team features the best defense of the four remaining teams in the tournament. They’re solid on the defensive glass and they’re currently holding teams under 47.6% effective field goal percentage. They play an aggressive man defense and use their length to simply suffocate teams and force them into contested shots.
They play at an extremely slow pace, but have the offense and athleticism to keep up with any team that wants to try to out-pace their defense. They are exceptional at controlling the ball and avoiding turnovers, while still moving the ball and finding open shooters. They do most of their damage around the rim, but they do have a handful of guys capable of making shots from beyond the arc. This is another team that pressures their opponents into mistakes while making very few of their own.
Why Villanova Wins: Michigan uses their elite defense and above average offense to “out-efficient” most of their opponents. Problem is, they’re the poor man’s Villanova when it comes to this department. If they’re able to limit Villanova behind the arc the way Texas Tech did, then it becomes much more of a game. But if Nova is hitting from deep, Michigan will need to throw their game-plan out the window.
Another problem for the Wolverines is that they don’t create a ton of extra possessions for themselves. They rank 275th in offensive rebound percentage, and are outside the Top 100 in defensive turnover percentage per KenPom. In a slow paced game where possessions are extra valuable, it’s hard to win if you can’t limit the number your opponent gets.
If Michigan is holding a late lead, they could also have trouble hitting free throws down the stretch. The Wolverines rank 326th in free throw percentage, making just 66.1% of their shots at the line. Charles Matthews, the team’s leader in free throw attempts, is shooting 56.6% on the season. The team’s best shooter at the line, Duncan Robinson (90% on the season), doesn’t even average two attempts per game. If this one comes down to free throws, the numbers suggest that Michigan will be at a huge disadvantage.
Seed: #11 in South | Record: 32-5 | KenPom: #30 | Adj. O: #60 | Adj. D: #18
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: The only thing the general public may be rooting for more than the Vegas favorite to face the Cinderella team of the tournament could be an under-card bare-knuckle fight between Sister Jean and Father Rob. But beyond their meme of the moment chaplain, the Ramblers do pose a number of challenges on the court.
This is an exceptional shooting team, ranking Top 15 in the country in both 2-point and 3-point percentage. Their effective field goal percentage of 58% ranks 5th in the country, and they feature five players shooting 39% or better from beyond the arc.
But it’s their defense where they’ve been able to outlast more talented teams in this year’s tournament. They know they’ll often be less athletic and undersized, but they use superior positioning and a tenacity on the defensive glass to limit other teams’ possessions and get them out of their comfort zones. They’re also very disciplined, putting opponents on the free throw line at the 15th lowest rate in the country.
Why Villanova Wins: The pieces may not look the same and they don’t have the same talent level, but conceptually Loyola-Chicago is almost a perfect hybrid of Virginia’s defense and Villanova’s offense. That in itself is a good enough reason to explain their trip to the Final Four. Take the philosophies of the best offense and the best defense of the last quarter century and get your team to buy in on both ends? Yeah, that’ll work.
The problem is that if you have to face a team that has that same buy in to the same philosophies, but with superior talent, that probably spells the end of the road. The Ramblers just have too many holes that they’ve been able to get away with so far this tournament. They cannot rebound on the offensive glass, and they’re very susceptible to turnovers, specifically steals (rank 314th in offensive steal %).
They have been shooting and defending over their heads this tournament, and that shouldn’t be discounted. Getting hot at the right time can often be better than being consistently good, just ask the 1985 or 2016 Wildcats. Nothing’s impossible this season, but I just find it VERY hard to believe that any team in the country, let alone the three opponents left in the Final Four, can beat Villanova at their own game.