Villanova junior guard Jalen Brunson dribbles past West Virginia sophomore guard James Bolden in the Sweet 16 of the 2018 NCAA tournament.
(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Kansas (31-7 overall, 13-5 conference)
Senior guard Devonte’ Graham (17.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, .396 FG%, .403 3P%, .830 FT%)
Senior guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (14.7 PPG, 4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, .438 FG%, .447 3P%)
Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike (13.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.8 BPG, .772 FG%, 1.7 BPG)
Redshirt sophomore guard Malik Newman (14 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, .464 FG%, .415 3P%, .832 FT%)
Junior guard Lagerald Vick (12.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.2 APG, .487 FG%)
Summary of Season:
The Kansas Jayhawks competed in several early season showcases and got off to a fast start winning seven straight games to begin the season. The stretch included a defeat over #7 Kentucky during the State Farm Champions Classic in mid-November. Kansas then suffered back-to-back double-digit losses to Washington and #16 Arizona State before going 9-1 in their next 10 contests, only coming up short against #18 Texas Tech. During that stretch however, the Jayhawks defeated two ranked teams (#16 TCU and #6 West Virginia). Kansas would double their loss total to six over their next six games, losing to #12 Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. Despite those losses, the Jayhawks had a 5-1 record over a six-game span to end the season. Entering this year’s Big 12 conference tournament as the #1 seed, Kansas got revenge against Oklahoma State, who beat them twice during the regular season, by defeating them in the quarterfinals. Kansas would go on to win the Big 12 tournament, taking down Kansas State in the semifinals and then West Virginia in the finals to earn an automatic NCAA tournament bid. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Kansas took down 16 seed Penn to start their tournament run and then defeated eight seed Seton Hall in the second round. The Jayhawks followed up the first weekend with a defeat over five seed Clemson in the Sweet 16 before taking down two seed Duke in an overtime victory in the Elite Eight to clinch a berth in the Final Four.
Villanova (34-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.6 APG, .527 FG%, .414 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (17.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.5 SPG, .512 FG%, .436 3P%, .848 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (12.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, .470 FG%, .385 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, .444 FG%, .390 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.5 BPG, .482 FG%, .446 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game win streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. However, in their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats easily beat 16 seed Radford to advance on to the second round. Following their opening round win, the Wildcats handedly took down nine seed Alabama to move on to the Sweet 16. In the Sweet 16, ‘Nova was tested by five seed West Virginia but escaped with a dominant late second half effort to advance onto the Elite Eight. The Elite Eight saw Villanova and three seed Texas Tech shoot poorly from the field but the Wildcats were able to score enough from the foul line to return to the Final Four for the second time in three years.
What Villanova must do to win:
33.3%. That was Villanova’s field goal percentage in a win against Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. 16.7%. That was ‘Nova’s three-point shooting percentage in the Elite Eight. Every team has an off day, it happens, but if ‘Nova wants to win against Kansas in the Final Four they cannot perform like they did against Texas Tech. Entering their contest against Kansas, the Wildcats are shooting 50% from field (sixth in the nation) and 40% from three (19th in the nation). The Wildcats have showed all year that they are one of the best shooting teams in the country and they must bounce back and prove that again versus the Jayhawks. ‘Nova also has to get to the foul line, where they are eighth in the country with a 78% free-throw percentage. Converting from the foul line saved the Wildcats in the Elite Eight and will be just as important in the Final Four as scoring opportunities will be at a premium.
What Kansas must do to win:
Kansas can’t turn the ball over. Granted, they usually don’t, but if they do, Villanova will eat up the Jayhawks. Bill Self’s squad dodged a bullet against a potent offensive Duke team, as they totaled 18 turnovers, their highest mark since the first game of the season. Even though the Jayhawks have rolled to the Final Four, they won’t be able to continue winning without taking care of the ball. Those turnover numbers have been on an upward trend. After only eight turnovers against Penn and 11 against Seton Hall, they’ve seen their turnover numbers jump up to 13 and 18 in the following two games against Clemson and Duke. They ranked first in the Big 12 after notching only 207 turnovers, 11.5 per game, during the conference season. Taking care of the ball has been an integral part of the team’s identity and they’ll have to do the same against Villanova, who averages nearly seven steals per game. More importantly, the Wildcats are the top scoring team in the country and the other team’s turnovers just give them more opportunities to score, something the Jayhawks don’t want.
Udoka Azubuike vs. Villanova defense
At 7-feet, 280 pounds, Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is a tough matchup for any opponent, let alone one defender. Azubuike’s size and strength make him a force to be reckoned with on offense and defense. When the big man is fully healthy, he is almost impossible to stop. While Villanova will likely give freshman forward Omari Spellman (6-foot-9, 245 pounds) the task of guarding Azubuike, it will be up to the entire Wildcat defense to slow down the center. Despite Azubuike’s size advantage over Spellman, the redshirt freshman should be able to disrupt the Kansas big man by forcing him off his spot in the paint and making him catch entry passes away from the low block. Spellman will not be alone in trying to stop Azubuike, as Villanova will need their entire team to limit the Nigeria native. ‘Nova will have to give Azubuike different looks on defense and double-team him if necessary to get the ball out of his hands.
Eric Paschall and Malik Newman
Eric Paschall has been Villanova’s swiss army knife this season as the forward has done a little bit of everything for the Wildcats. Paschall has scored, rebounded, and done the dirty work on defense for ‘Nova and that has been on full display during the NCAA tournament. Leading up to the Final Four, the 2014 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year scored in double-digits in three out of four tournament games, grabbed five or more rebounds in three games, and has matched up against opponents’ 4s and 5s while limiting their offensive production. With ‘Nova set to face a Kansas team that has elite size, athleticism, and talent at almost every position, not only will it be important for Paschall to contribute on offense but it will be essential for him to slow down his defensive assignment and bang down in the paint for boards.
Malik Newman scored a career-high 32 points against Duke in the Elite Eight to help Kansas get to the Final Four. Coming into the NCAA tournament, Newman was on fire, as he exploded in the Big 12 tournament, leading the Jayhawks in scoring in all three conference tournament games. Newman has carried that over into the NCAA tournament averaging 21.8 points and leading Kansas in scoring in three out of four tournament games. While many thought it would be star Devonte’ Graham who would guide Kansas this postseason, it has been Newman who has stepped up. The Jackson, Mississippi native can score from all three levels, which makes him a nightmare for opposing defenders, and has superior athleticism that allows him to pick opponents’ pockets on defense. Newman has shown that he can take over under the brightest lights and in the biggest games, making the sophomore scary in San Antonio.
In a great game, the Wildcats tough out a close one. The much anticipated matchup between Jalen Brunson and Devonte’ Graham lives up to expectations, but the Wildcats are too versatile for the Jayhawks. Although Bill Self’s team is a solid defensive squad, they’re not nearly strong enough to slow down the Wildcats, the nation’s top offensive squad. Villanova gets out to an early lead, but Kansas claws their way back. In the end, Brunson wins the battle with Graham, Spellman gets the best of his matchup with Azubuike, and carries the Wildcats to the NCAA championship game again.
-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship