Can Kansas beat Villanova? Or will the Wildcats advance? Analyzing the Final Four matchup of the top seeds, including Jalen Brunson vs. Devonte' Graham and more.
The Final Four is set. The field features two No. 1 seeds and one No. 3, all of which are blue bloods. Villanova, Kansas and Michigan—all tournament champions in their respective conferences—have posted a combined 36-3 record over the last six weeks. Then there’s the tournament’s Cinderella, No. 11 Loyola-Chicago. The two top seeds will face off for a spot in the title game on Saturday, in a matchup that pits two offensive powerhouses against one another. Unlike the first game between Michigan and Loyola-Chicago, expect the Villanova-Kansas showdown to feature a lot of scoring, particularly from the perimeter.
Which top-seeded squad will advance to the national championship game? Let’s take a look at three key elements for the second game of Final Four, which tips off on Saturday, March 31 at 8:49 p.m. ET. You can read about the first matchup between Michigan and Loyola-Chicago here.
All about the perimeter
On one side, this game has Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick. On the other side, it has Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Phil Booth. Put simply: there will be a ton of perimeter talent on the floor when Kansas and Villanova meet on Saturday night.
The Jayhawks’ Graham and Mykhailiuk and the Wildcats’ Brunson and Bridges have been the foundations upon which these two powerhouses have rested all season. Villanova’s pair is wholly among the top-five players in the country, according to kenpom.com’s rankings, with Brunson second and Bridges fifth. Neither Graham nor Mykhailiuk are rated that highly, but they’ve combined to make 220 three-pointers, the second most of any duo in the country behind Marquette’s Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey. Newman has broken through in the tournament—most notably with his 32-point outburst against Duke in the Elite Eight—and Vick pours in 12.2 points per game. DiVincenzo and Booth also average double-digit points per contest, while the latter is Villanova’s best perimeter defender. The Wildcats have lost two of their 30 games with Booth on the floor. They lost two of the eight he missed due to injury.
With all due respect to Udoka Azubuike, Silvio De Sousa and Eric Paschall, this game will be decided on the outside. Even 6’8” Omari Spellman, ostensibly Villanova’s center, has connected on 44.6% of his 139 three-point attempts this season. The winner of this game will almost certainly need at least 80 points, making it a stark contrast to the first semifinal of the night.
Can Villanova exploit Kansas’ lone weakness?
Kansas does nearly everything well. The Jayhawks are ranked fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency and 42nd on the other side of the ball. They’re sixth in effective field goal percentage, ninth in three-point percentage and 19th in two-point percentage. They don’t turn the ball over, ensuring that an extreme majority of their possessions end with a good look. Like Villanova, Kansas is an offensive machine.
The one thing Kansas struggles with is cleaning up its defensive glass. The Jayhawks rank 290th in the country in defensive-rebounding rate, behind such luminaries as American, Houston Baptist and Mississippi Valley State. That’s not to say Kansas is a worse rebounding team than those three. If Kansas played in the Patriot League, it probably would’ve out-rebounded American. Still, this is a soft spot Kansas’ opponents can attack.
Villanova isn’t exactly an elite rebounding team, either. The Wildcats rank 140th in offensive-rebounding rate, and 105th on the defensive end. Those numbers may not jump off the page, but they are at least average for a team in a power conference, and comfortably above average compared with the entire country. That could be enough for Villanova to turn Kansas’ lone weakness into an Achilles’ heel.
Jalen Brunson vs. Devonte’ Graham
We touched on this in the first point, but players like Brunson and Graham squaring off is what the tournament generally—and specifically, the Final Four—is all about.
Look at what these two have accomplished in their combined seven years of college basketball. Brunson was a key contributor as a true freshman to Villanova’s 2015–16 national championship team. He scored 9.6 points and dished out 2.5 assists while playing 24 minutes per game, setting himself up to be one of the team leaders the last two seasons. He has been one of the best players in the country all year, averaging 19.2 points and 4.6 assists, with field goal percentages of 52.7%, 81.1% and 41.4%.
Graham, meanwhile, emerged in his sophomore season playing nearly 33 minutes per game while averaging 11.3 points on a team that also featured Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden and Frank Mason and made it to the Elite Eight. This was, in fact, Graham’s third trip to the Elite Eight in his four years in Lawrence. But it’s the first time he’s advanced to the Final Four. Graham has done it all for Kansas this season, posting per-game averages of 17.2 points, 7.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 37.2 minutes. If you go grab a drink during Graham’s lone stint on the bench in a game, chances are he’ll be back on the floor by time you get back to the couch. He won the Big 12 Player of the Year Award and rightly so, even with Trae Young leading the country in points and assists per game.
The Brunson-Graham matchup isn’t going to be the only determining factor in this game, but these two elite players squaring off in the Final Four is representative of what makes college basketball great.