Any worthwhile Final Four preview should provide an informed forecast of events.
This will be the first Final Four in three long years with fans.
Jim Nantz loves referencing past Final Four locations and he will mention that this is the 40th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot against Georgetown, which also occurred at the Superdome. He may also mention that this is the 35th anniversary of Keith Smart’s game-winning shot against Syracuse, which also occurred at the Superdome. He will definitely mention that this is the 29th anniversary of North Carolina’s 1993 national title, which was also won at the Superdome. There would seem to be no particular reasons to mention the 2003 title won by Syracuse or the 2012 championship captured by Kentucky, both of which also occurred at the Superdome, but you never know.
Bill Raftery will make self-deprecating remarks about his coaching and playing days. In fact he was a good coach and an even better player. He was La Salle’s leading scorer as a sophomore in an era when sophomores were the youngest players on the floor.
Grant Hill may sound unduly self-deprecating in tone with reference to his playing days even though he was a first-team All American in 1994. He will say you don’t need a three here.
Because accurate forecasting is difficult, we like to rely on patterns that have held true in the past. Sure enough there are several historical streaks on the line in New Orleans. Basically North Carolina can snap all of them by winning the national title.
The Week 6 AP poll. Every year since 2004, the national champion has been ranked in the top 12 of that season’s Week 6 AP poll. That particular poll is customarily released after a busy Thanksgiving weekend of basketball. Week 6 stands out relative to its predecessors in a given season in terms of predictive value with reference to the national champion. That particular poll is also just as clairvoyant on this narrow question as any subsequent week’s balloting.
This year’s Week 6 poll looked like this:
1. Baylor 2. Duke 3. Purdue 4. UCLA 5. Gonzaga 6. Alabama 7. Kansas 8. Arizona 9. Villanova 10. USC 11. Iowa State 12. Michigan State
The “350 teams that will not win the national title” streak. Every year since 2016 my editors at ESPN.com have asked me during Champ Week to select a group of eight teams that includes the eventual national champion. This year under the headline of “teams that will not win the national title,” said editors heartlessly selected a picture of my alma mater’s basketball team. Heartless and correct.
This annual “teams that will not win” exercise is doomed to fail very soon because the sport I write about is not college football. Nevertheless, the streak now stands at 5-for-5. This year the magic eight were: Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Gonzaga, Houston, Kansas, Kentucky, and Villanova.
Top six at KenPom, a tendency though not a streak. Since the dawn of KenPom time, 16 of 19 national champions have been ranked in the top six for adjusted efficiency margin at his site on the morning after Selection Sunday. The exceptions to this rule were Syracuse in 2003 and UConn in 2011 and 2014.
This year the KenPom top six were: Gonzaga, Arizona, Kentucky, Houston, Baylor, and Kansas.
In reality, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Villanova will do exactly as they please and we have no idea what that will entail. One might even suggest that the past may prove to be a less trusty travel guide now that we have super seniors and transfers and very old players and what have you all fairly running amok.
While the talk of age that graced this space in February has been picked up in some quarters, it does bear repeating that the committee wasn’t checking dates of birth when it set up this bracket. As a result, we know in advance that we’ll get one and only one really old team a la Baylor 2021 in the national title game. That seasoned group will be facing an opponent that will either be normal or on the young side compared to recent pre-pandemic national champions.
All ages welcome in New Orleans
Average age weighted by minutes
AAWM Kansas 22.5 Villanova 22.4 North Carolina 21.6 Duke 20.0 Past champions Baylor 2021 22.3 Virginia 2019 21.4 Villanova 2018 21.2 North Carolina 2017 21.6 Villanova 2016 21.1 Duke 2015 20.1 UConn 2014 21.7 Louisville 2013 21.7 Kentucky 2012 19.7
The normal team in terms of age is North Carolina, which is noteworthy because in other ways the Tar Heels may be the most enigmatic group at the Final Four.
It’s difficult to get a good read on UNC’s 292 tournament possessions. The Heels blew up virtually from the opening tip against Marquette and had that contest put away by halftime. The overtime win against Baylor was just odd in every respect, and of course the last time we saw North Carolina it was picking on a No. 15 seed.
The most normal game in the bunch was perhaps the win over UCLA in the regional semifinals. Caleb Love hung 30 points on the Bruins, Armando Bacot went on to take home East Regional MOP honors, and the scary thing if you’re Duke is that it’s actually Brady Manek who’s having the best tournament on offense of any of these guys.
Best true shooting percentages at the Final Four, tournament games only (20 %Shots minimum)
TS% %Shots Brady Manek 73.9 24.1 Jermaine Samuels 72.7 22.0 AJ Griffin 64.1 20.7 Remy Martin 62.6 28.1 Paolo Banchero 62.1 25.3
Duke will attempt to stay on Manek when he’s beyond the arc, but the Blue Devils’ best stratagem against their ancient foe may be to simply make this a scoring contest. Soon-to-be-spectator Mike Krzyzewski has the best tournament offense in New Orleans, one that has rung up 1.20 points per possession over the course of four wins. Jeremy Roach has been a revelation, Mark Williams is shooting 80 percent on his twos, and as a team Duke’s hitting shots from both sides of the arc.
This is a younger and more emotionally demonstrative version of the similarly accurate Villanova 2018 team. In fact the Blue Devils have been so successful at getting the ball in the basket that it hasn’t mattered that tournament opponents are hitting threes or that those same opponents are recording a significantly higher shot volume than Coach K’s guys.
As for the OG Villanova version of Villanova, the accurate days are long gone and it looks weird. Starting with Darrun Hilliard and running up through the two national championship teams, it seemed as though the Wildcats had cracked Naismith’s code and immaculate 60 percent two-point shooting would just happen, annually and team-wide, as a matter of course.
No longer. Nova has actually posted a lower success rate on its twos (45.7 percent) than have its tournament opponents (46.2). The Wildcats are here again anyway for a remarkable third time in six tournaments because of excellent defense. That D would figure to stay strong even in Justin Moore’s absence, thought it’s also the case that Villanova’s last four opponents have missed a good many threes.
Legitimately great defense with a bit of additional help from the hoops gods
Worst pre-Final Four tournament opponent 3FG%s, 2011-22
Opp. 3FGM Opp. 3FGA % Syracuse 2013 14 91 15.4 Kentucky 2015 12 59 20.3 Villanova 2022 17 80 21.3 VCU 2011 23 100 23.0 Texas Tech 2019 22 94 23.4 Michigan State 2015 14 59 23.7
Villanova’s getting it done on offense with shot volume, but their tournament opponents have also recorded a high number of attempts. Indeed, the Wildcats’ games in March Madness have offered the rare 2020s spectacle where both teams perform well on their offensive glass.
Of the four semifinalists Nova’s been by far the poorest defensive rebounding team in tournament play. With Jay Wright’s group preferring to walk the ball up UCLA-style at a rate of 60 possessions per 40 minutes, there’s little or no disincentive for Kansas to press this issue and go after its misses. Jalen Wilson in particular did commendable work on the offensive boards against both Creighton and Providence. If this trend continues against a third Catholic tournament opponent, it will be good news for KU.
On paper the Kansas defense was superb in the Midwest Regional, and in fact the only opposing offenses to look somewhat functional against these guys were the Bluejays for two halves and Miami for one. The Jayhawks have limited tournament opponents to one shot while holding them to 39 percent shooting inside the arc. It’s like Jeff Withey never left.
Enjoy the games. If it comes up, you do in fact need a three here.