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2022 Final Four Picks

Collin Gillespie, Villanova

1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. 2 Villanova Wildcats

Two of the sport's most consistent programs collide in the opening game of the Final Four, with Kansas looking to avenge their most recent losses in the series, one in the Final Four of 2018 and back in the Elite Eight of 2016. The Jayhawks took their lumps on the season, but played good enough basketball to earn a top seed and battle their way to New Orleans. It's a team that isn't loaded with the future NBA stars that are a common occurrence in Lawrence, but that of course doesn't mean the Jayhawks aren't talented. Big 12 Player of the Year Ochai Agbaji has put together a special senior season and is looking to end his illustrated KU career with a National Title. The offense runs through Agbaji; he's an elite iso scorer who's rounded out his offensive game. He's always been able to get to the rim, but his growth as a shot creator and three-point shooter has made him a scary offensive weapon. He'll command the majority of Villanova's attention, but the play of guards Remy Martin and Christian Braun has been just as important to the Jayhawks over the March run. Martin is a playmaker in every sense of the word; he'll make some maddening plays, but then respond with a string of dazzling possessions. He had an up-and-down season with the Jayhawks but has come into his own in the NCAA Tournament, winning Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Region. Braun finished just behind Agbaji in points per game on the season and plays an important role as the team's chief floor-spacer. With that being said, Braun has become so much more, as an underrated distributor and solid defender. This Kansas team isn't as large in the frontcourt as past Bill Self teams, although David McCormack is a traditional big. I'll be curious to see what type of role McCormack plays in this game. He's had a solid year but KU doesn't exactly lean on him offensively. Self has occasionally looked to him when they need a bucket underneath, but expect Villanova to crash the paint and force the Jayhawks away from the basket in this one.

Villanova didn't win a share of the Big East Title for the first time since 2017-2018, but the Wildcats have put it together in March. However, 'Nova suffered a substantial loss in the Elite Eight when Justin Moore tore his Achilles, leaving them without one of their best players. Moore was second on the team in points per game and is an impressive rebounder for his position, robbing us of a fun battle between him and either Braun or Agbaji. Yet, I don't suspect Jay Wright to change his game plan too much in this one; expect star guard Collin Gillespie to handle the ball, 'Nova to space the court, and then attack the hoop and play downhill. This isn't as pretty of an offense as past Villanova teams have run, but Gillespie keeps things flowing and is always ready to hit a big shot. This roster, more than any other Wright-coached team, embraces position-less basketball. Everybody on this roster can play different spots on the floor and all of them will be asked to do different things. While not having Moore out there will hurt, the Wildcats will still boast Gillespie and Caleb Daniels in the backcourt, while the frontcourt is led by Eric Dixon, Jermaine Samuels, and Brandon Slater. I'm actually a huge fan of this frontline trio. They aren't the flashiest group, but play swarming defense and are efficient scorers. They don't have an overwhelming size advantage over Kansas, but I still suspect this group to get opportunities in the paint. One factor I'm watching with the absence of Moore is the lack of depth on this Villanova team. Few teams in college basketball go 9-10 guys deep anymore and even with a healthy Moore, the Wildcats only ran a 6-7 man rotation. That hasn't hurt them up to this point but this late in the Tournament against a good Kansas team, it's something to monitor.

Kansas was my runner-up pick prior to the tip-off of the NCAA Tournament and they beat several tough foes en route to a Final Four berth. There's a lot of reasons to think this might be their year. For one, Self and the program haven't won a National Title in a decade-and-a-half and they've been too consistent not to add another soon, plus it's a well-rounded group playing an injured Villanova team. But, something tells me all the people rushing to pick KU because of the Moore injury are overreacting. That's not to discount Moore, but this Wildcats team has been arguably the most impressive team of this entire Big Dance and Wright has consistently proven himself as a coach on the largest stage. This selection isn't very analytical or detail-oriented, but just the feeling I get, that 'Nova will respond to the Moore injury and be even tougher, once again knocking the Jayhawks out of the Tournament.

Villanova by five

2 Duke Blue Devils vs. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels

The Duke and North Carolina rivalry is the lifeblood of college basketball. From the legendary coaches, to the iconic players, to the passion of the fans, to the different shades of blue. As if there wasn't enough storylines and hate between the two, they now collide for the first time ever in the NCAA Tournament, with a spot in the National Championship on the line. Add to that the fact that this is Coach K's last run after an illustrious coaching career and this may go down as one of the most hyped college basketball games of all-time.

Duke is all about their trio of freshmen sensations; Paolo Banchero, Trevor Keels, and A.J. Griffin. Keels is the ball-handler and sticky defender, Griffin is the shooter, while Banchero is the do-everything forward set to be a top selection in the 2022 NBA Draft. Coach K and staff have brought in many elite groups of freshmen over the years, but this particular one plays off each other so well and has their own strengths. Of course, it does help that there is veteran leadership on this team, players who often get lost in the shuffle but are crucial contributors, as well. Big man Mark Williams is the defensive anchor who will match up against Armando Bacot in the post, while Wendell Moore and Jeremy Roach help facilitate the offense and are potent in transition. The blend of stud freshmen and veterans is vitally important; while Williams and Roach don't have NCAA Tournament experience, they've still played in enough big games to understand this moment and live up to it. In the past, some of the younger Duke teams haven't been able to perform on the biggest stage, but this team is ready and able to do it. They've felt an insane amount of pressure all season, but don't expect them to fold now. 

North Carolina had a rough regular season before turning it on at the right time. After earning an 8 seed, they blew out Marquette, survived against the reigning National Champion Baylor Bears, and then handled UCLA and "Cinderella" Saint Peter's. This is the third UNC team to reach the Final Four since 2016, but easily their most improbable. They slumped severely on numerous times during the season and are breaking in a new head coach in Hubert Davis, yet are playing tremendous basketball. It helps that Brady Manek, a former Oklahoma transfer who looks and plays similar to Larry Bird, has been absolutely unstoppable this Tournament. He's averaging 21.5 points per game despite missing a big chunk of the Baylor game and has fueled the Tar Heel offense. It's not just Manek's scoring, but his presence on the floor demands the defense's attention. With him out there, he opens up lanes for Caleb Love and R.J. Davis and usually is able to pull a bigger defender out to the perimeter with him, giving Bacot more space underneath. In addition to Manek, Love, Davis and Leaky Black all deserve a bunch of credit for their play during this run. This trio has taken a lot of criticism during their UNC careers, but they've responded when the Heels have needed them most. Love in particular has really impressed me; he had a big game against Marquette but then struggled against Baylor, turning the ball over six times. The fact that he was able to come back and drop 30 to fuel the victory against UCLA says a lot about his character. He's a real problem for a Duke team that doesn't have a guard that matches up super well against him. He's quicker than Keels and bigger than Roach, which is why he went for 22 the last time he played the Blue Devils. As important as all those pieces are, I still think Bacot is the key. He's been tremendous all season and has followed it up with a great NCAA Tournament appearance, but he hasn't played many teams with an elite defensive big like Williams. If he struggles, I'm not sure how many easy buckets UNC is going to be able to get in this game, especially with how fierce the Blue Devils can be defending the perimeter.

I've doubted UNC most of this season and into this Tournament but to their credit, they've responded with a truly impressive run. With that being said, this feels like Duke's time to me. Not because the refs are going to favor Coach K and the Blue Devils, or any other conspiracy. They're simply a better basketball team and match up pretty well against UNC, even if they lost in the two team's previous meeting. Perhaps that should provide them the extra bit of motivation they need to overcome the flaming hot Heels here.

Duke by eight

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