Previewing the national semifinal game between No. 1 seed Villanova (34-4) and No. 1 seed Kansas (31-7)
The Wildcats advanced to San Antonio with grind-it-out victories in self-described “ugly” games against West Virginia and Texas Tech. That they used defense and rebounding to overcome a poor shooting game and defeat the Red Raiders by 12 points was a boost to their confidence. The Cats pulled down a season-high 20 offensive rebounds against Tech and could succeed there again against a Kansas team that has had problems at times in that area. Their three-point defense has to be on point against the Jayhawks, whose four starting guards can shoot threes.
The Jayhawks haven’t exactly dazzled on defense, allowing 79, 76 and 81 points in their last three games. But they have hit big shots when necessary and have come up with clutch defensive stops, especially in overtime of their win over Duke that sent them to the Final Four. They have received an offensive jolt from redshirt sophomore guard Malik Newman, who had averaged 12.9 points in Big 12 play but has surged to 21.8 points per game in the tournament, making 13 three-point baskets. Senior Devonte’ Graham controls the action on the floor, as a scorer or as a distributor.
The key to the game might very well be the ability of one team to effectively defend the three-point shooting of its opponent. After limiting Texas Tech to 33.3 percent shooting in Sunday’s win, Villanova boasts some impressive defensive NCAA tournament numbers: 64.0 points per game allowed and 36.7 percent opponent shooting, including 27.3 percent from beyond the arc. Kansas has some solid numbers — 42.7 percent defensive percentage, 33.3 percent from 3 — plus a shot-blocking presence at the rim in 7-foot sophomore Udoka Azubuike, who does have issues with foul trouble.
These are two of the five most prolific three-point-shooting teams in the nation. The Wildcats, with 436 three-point baskets, can set a Division I record for most threes in a season by knocking down seven Saturday night. They average 11.5 per game and the Jayhawks own a 10.1 average this season. In the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats hold a 12.0-9.8 edge in threes per game. Omari Spellman paces ‘Nova from the arc at 47.4 percent, and Mikal Bridges has hit 11 threes in the tournament. Newman and Lagerald Vick have combined for 23 threes and 46.0 percent accuracy from distance.
Villanova would appear to be the favorite to win it all, with its defense rising to close to the level of its offense, the most efficient offense in the country for much of the season. The Wildcats must kick it up yet another notch on defense to control Kansas’ inside and outside game. It has been said that this is not Bill Self’s best Jayhawks team but one he has recognized to be capable of better play, which has come out in its seven-game winning streak in the postseason. To win, Villanova must expose its opponent’s rebounding weakness and try to get Azubuike and the other Kansas big men in foul trouble.