The winding road that Duke, Carolina, Villanova and Kansas all took to the Final Four
Part of what makes college basketball great is seeing how programs and players improve over the course of time. There were many different points this season, where all hope looked lost for each of the four teams heading down to New Orleans for the Final Four.
With many people calling this the “Blue Blood Final Four,” it is one of the biggest name-brand Final Four’s of all time.
With that being said, each one of these teams has gone through adversity and fought to be here.
Here are some thoughts on each team’s season so far, how they got here and what to expect next weekend in New Orleans:
Duke Blue Devils
From the start of the season, it has been apparent that Duke had one of if not the most talented roster in all of college basketball. There are six future pros on this roster and historically, those have been the teams to overwhelm their opponents and do something special in March.
With that being said, this Duke team has struggled to put it together on a consistent basis for the majority of the season. There were some games where Duke looked like the best team in the country, and there were others that would leave everyone scratching their head. The biggest one came on the final Saturday of the regular season, when North Carolina went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat Duke in the final game Mike Krzyzewski would ever coach at his home. Following this loss, Duke players looked so dejected, that it looked like their season had been over. There were questions about what Duke would do in a close game, high pressure situations going into the tournament, fresh off that shocking loss.
Beyond that, once the bracket was released, the matchups didn’t look great for Duke on, as they were put into a bracket tough, veteran teams like Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas.
It was a legitimate concern to see how Duke’s talent would respond to getting punched in the mouth a few times. Well not only have they responded, but responded in the best way possible - by taking the punching and punching back.
Duke found themselves trailing by five with five minutes to play against Michigan State, and it felt like things could be coming to an end. Instead, Duke ended the game on a 20-7 run to close out Michigan State. Against Texas Tech and Arkansas, Duke was really able to take advantage of significant talent edges and took over in the second half of each game. Sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach has been the guy that has really turned things around lately, and the entire Duke team has responded. He is averaging 18.8 points per game since the start of the ACC Tournament and has made so many big shots down the stretch.
However this ends for Coach K, one thing that can’t be denied is that he always had and will have his teams well prepared and ready for the biggest games. The fact that Duke will be playing their arch rival North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, for the first time ever in the Final Four, doesn’t even feel real yet. No better scenario could have been scripted to close out the legendary career of Coach K.
Since the start of the FBI probe in 2017, Kansas and many of the other programs involved have been struggling to return to the same level of recruiting as prior. The reason why not many haven't even noticed is because Bill Self is such a good coach that it hardly even matters. Unlike many great Kansas teams of the past there isn’t one elite recruit on this team, but Bill Self still turned it into a winner. He did it with his elite player development, including Ochai Agbaji who only had one other Power 6 offer coming out of high school.
In terms of their road, Kansas was able to win a handful of games to get to the Elite 8, without Agbaji playing like the National Player of the Year candidate that we saw for a majority of the season. That changed on Sunday, when he had 18 points on an efficient 8/12 shooting from the field. Also, after a disappointing regular season, Arizona State transfer Remy Martin has stepped up for Kansas, when they needed him most. The one thing this Jayhawk team had been missing was that lead ball handler that is able to create a shot by himself, especially when the play is breaking down. Kansas does not survive against Creighton or Providence without the contributions of Martin. There was a reason why this kid was the Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year and one of the most coveted transfers on the market this past offseason. With their win over Miami on Sunday, Kansas secured their second Final Four berth in the last four NCAA Tournaments and became the only No. 1 seed in this tournament to make the Final Four.
Until the second half against Miami, Kansas had yet to show a stretch where they looked like a real National Championship team. Kansas barely survived a shorthanded Creighton team, and easily could have fallen to Providence if it wasn’t for a lackluster shooting night for the Friars. Instead, great teams find ways to win when it isn’t their best night. Kansas even looked like they could be in trouble after the first half, when they went to the locker room trailing by six and Miami looked like they had more playmakers. Instead, Kansas outscored Miami 47-15 in the second half, in the most dominant stretch of basketball by any team so far in this tournament. If Kansas plays like that heading into New Orleans, there is zero doubt this team is National Championship good.
North Carolina Tar Heels
On February 16th, North Carolina had just lost in embarrassing fashion to a bad Pitt team at home. All hope seemed lost for a Tar Heel team that was significantly underachieving, and all eyes were on first year head coach Hubert Davis. North Carolina also was no guarantee for an NCAA Tournament spot, considering at that point they had yet to collect a Quad 1 win, and had been blown out in embarrassing fashion by basically every good team they had faced up to that point. Right after the Pitt loss, North Carolina picked up their first Quadrant 1 win of the season at Virginia Tech, which really helped them gain some confidence. North Carolina is 10-1 since the loss to Pitt, and have looked like the elite team, many people expected in the preseason.
What's interesting about Carolina though is that even when they started to player better, the spotlight was on the other team. When the Tar Heels went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and shocked Duke in Coach K’s final home game, the main narrative was how did Duke lose that game? What no one realized was that North Carolina turned a corner and has only been getting better. Having a backcourt of Caleb Love and RJ Davis can be boom or bust at times. Both sophomores have had some good and bad moments throughout the season, however they have both been great in the NCAA Tournament, while leading the Tar Heels to New Orleans. In one of the better games of the tournament so far, Caleb Love dropped 30 points including a number of late contested threes to give North Carolina the victory over UCLA. Prior to that, RJ Davis dropped 30 in the Round of 32 victory over Baylor. With these two guys in your backcourt, something is always going to happen because they are not afraid to go out and try to make a play.
In addition Brady Manek has turned into a valuable piece as a stretch 4, shooting 47 percent from three in the NCAA Tournament. While America was rooting for the Saint Peters magical run to continue, Armando Bacot put those talks to bed quickly, with 14 rebounds in the first 11 minutes of the game. With two dynamic guards, a really good stretch 4 and a dominant big, this team fits together so nicely. Hubert Davis deserves so much credit, for keeping the faith in that locker room and rallying his team to a Final Four. There isn’t anyone playing better basketball than North Carolina right now. The Final Four matchup with Duke, could be the most anticipated Final Four game of all time, and the Heels know revenge will be the first thing on Duke’s mind.
One of the most heartbreaking moments of the tournament so far was Justin Moore going down with the Achilles injury in the final minutes of Villanova’s win on Saturday against Houston. Moore came to Villanova, the season after Villanova's most recent Final Four in 2018 to get to his own Final Four, and for this moment. It was gut wrenching to see him go down, with just seconds left before Villanova reached the ultimate destination. Moore was out there for the celebration in the post-game, but knew the reality in a very difficult situation.
Looking at Villanova, the culture Jay Wright has built could be the thing that gets all of Villanova through a tough situation like this. The future Hall of Fame coach, has now won two National Championships, while making it to three Final Four’s in the past six years. It has gotten to a point, where there is not enough talk about just how great of a coach Jay Wright is and there may not be another coach in the country better than him right now.
Unlike the two National Championship teams under Wright at Vilanova, this team does not have a sure fire pro. In addition, while playing six guys in the rotation for the majority of the season, depth has been a concern. With that being said, when your team is so disciplined and rarely fouls, that is when depth could be a little overrated. The Wildcats were able to come away with a victory over Houston, despite only shooting 29 percent from the field and scoring 50 points. Villanova was able to play lights out defense and keep Houston away from the offensive glass, which is usually their biggest strength. The fact that Villanova’s tallest regular contributor is 6’8 Eric Dixon, and they ended the rebounding battle with Houston even at 35, is more than impressive. The Wildcats might need guys off the bench to step up in the absence of Moore, however Caleb Daniels won’t be shy moving into the starting lineup. The stage will be big for Daniels, as the unsung hero of Villanova’s season will be playing in his home town of New Orleans.
Even without Justin Moore, Villanova should never be counted out, especially in the NCAA Tournament. This is the same program, that gave Baylor, their toughest fight last year without Collin Gillespie, on their road to a National Championship.
Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacKrull_
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