The Final Four for 2022 is set: Kansas, Villanova, Duke, and North Carolina will have the chance to win the NCAA tournament. Kansas and Villanova play each other first on Saturday, followed by a historic Duke-North Carolina matchup for the rights to play in the national championship, which will take place on Monday, April 4. Using advanced metric rankings, recent play, and player statistics, I have made predictions about which teams will win the Final Four games and which team will win the championship.
Kansas vs Villanova
The first Final Four game on Saturday will see Kansas face off against Villanova. First, we can look at their rankings in some team ranking systems. First we can look at SABER, the college basketball ratings that I created myself using offensive and defensive efficiencies. The ratings account for strength of schedule, location, recency, and defensive 3-point luck.
In the season-long SABER rankings, Kansas ranks just ahead of Villanova at 11th in the country. Kansas has the better offense, while Villanova boasts a superior defense. KenPom holds a similar opinion, ranking Kansas at 4th in the nation (7th offense, 18th defense) and Villanova at 9th (9th offense, 17th defense). However, looking at more recent play may give us a better look at how these teams are performing.
Over the last 10 games, Kansas ranks 6th in SABER while Villanova has been in a sort of a slump, ranking 19th. The Kansas defense has performed well lately, ranking 4th in the nation after holding 8 of their last 9 opponents under 70 points. Kansas’s defense really showed up against Miami in the Elite 8, holding the 19th ranked offense to just 50 points. Meanwhile, Villanova’s defense seems to be trending down. While Villanova has held opposing offenses to low point totals, these numbers are not an accurate portrayal of their defense since they play at a slow pace and teams have been shooting poorly from deep against them. In their last 5 games, no opponents have hit over 35% of their 3-point attempts. The most was Michigan, which went 6/18 (33%) from 3, while Houston, Delaware, and Creighton shot under 20% from 3. It has been shown that offense holds more control over 3-point shooting than defense, so Villanova’s defense is set to regress in the Final Four.
Using the four factors (shooting, turnovers, offensive rebounding, and free throws), we can see each team’s strengths and weaknesses. When Kansas’s offense faces Villanova’s defense, they will have one significant advantage: offensive rebounding. Kansas has the 37th best offensive rebounding percentage, while Villanova’s main defensive weakness is rebounding. Kansas center David McCormack is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and he will have many opportunities for second chance points against Villanova. Additionally, Kansas likes to play fast, taking advantage of fast break opportunities for quick points. This is a stark contrast to Villanova, a school that uses a lot of the shot clock on every possession.
When Villanova has the ball, you can trust them to limit mistakes. Villanova turns the ball over at the 29th lowest rate in the nation. Kansas doesn’t do a great job of forcing turnovers, so it should be a clean game for Villanova. One weakness for Villanova, though, is their 2-point offense. Villanova is one of the best 3-point shooting teams, but they hit less than 50% of shots inside the arc. The primarily reasons for Villanova’s bad 2-point shooting are the offense of Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore. Gillespie hits just 51% of shots near the rim (which is not good at all), while Moore takes lots of long 2’s but doesn’t hit them at an efficient rate (just 30%). Without Moore, the offense will rely mostly on Gillespie, so they will at least attempt fewer long 2’s (although efficiency at the rim will still be bad).
Another interesting fact about Villanova’s style of play is their reliance on 3-pointers. About 46% of Villanova’s field goal attempts come from behind the arc, the 20th largest in the country. On defense, about 42% of their shots defended are 3-pointers (NCAA average is 38%, for reference), making them one of the most reliant teams on 3-point efficiency on both offense and defense. This style of play, combined with their very slow pace, could actually prove to be an advantage for Villanova. Villanova seems to be at an initial disadvantage to Kansas due to their recent play and Justin Moore’s injury, but a high reliance on 3’s and a slow pace increases the variance of efficiency in a 1-game sample. If Villanova gets some shooting luck and limits the number of possessions in the game, they have a great shot at beating Kansas.
Kansas is led by Christian Braun, Ochai Agbaji, and Remy Martin on offense. All-American Ochai Agbaji is probably their best player, making over 40% of his 3-point attempts while serving as one of Kansas’s primary shot creators (estimated 4.2 open shots created per 100 possessions, using Ben Taylor’s Box Creation formula). Remy Martin is also a huge threat from the perimeter, and he also makes pull-up mid-range jumpers frequently. David McCormack records an offensive rebound on 20% of his chances, which will be a huge factor against a Villanova team without a contributing player taller than 6’8″. Defensively, McCormack and Lightfoot serve as rim protectors for Kansas, while Dajuan Harris causes trouble on the perimeter by stealing the ball. One danger for Kansas defensively, though, is that Mitch Lightfoot has a tendency to foul a lot, which would be an issue against a Villanova team that will likely break the all-time record for free throw percentage.
Justin Moore’s injury looms large over Villanova. Moore shouldered the 2nd largest offensive load for Villanova, behind only Collin Gillespie. Without Moore, Gillespie will have to take on even more responsibility on offense and others like Jermaine Samuels, Caleb Daniels, and Eric Dixon will have to step up. Another reason that Justin Moore’s absence will have such a large impact is because Villanova was using a 6-man rotation prior to his injury. Without Moore, Villanova will have to turn to Bryan Antoine or Chris Arcidiacono as their 6th man, both of whom have played sparingly this season and haven’t looked good when they were in (both are below a 50% true shooting percentage on the year). Outside of having a high usage, Justin Moore was also Villanova’s 2nd best shot creator and turned the ball over infrequently. It remains to be seen if any other players can step up and help Gillespie to create good shots.
Villanova’s rotation does not have a player that stands taller than 6’8″. One benefit to their rotation is that they have no bad shooters. Everyone is a threat to shoot from deep, and all but Samuels hit at least 30% of their 3’s. Therefore, Villanova will be able to utilize a 5-out on at least a few possessions to help draw David McCormack out of the paint, allowing for easier shots at the rim or open perimeter shots if McCormack leaves his man on the perimeter. However, the lack of a big guy hurts Villanova with rim protection as Samuels or Dixon will have to guard Kansas’s big man. This will be Kansas’s biggest edge, since they should be able to get lots of 2nd chance points through the offensive rebounding of David McCormack or Mitch Lightfoot.
I have Kansas beating Villanova and advancing to the championship. The two key reasons for my pick are Kansas’s offensive rebounding advantage and the loss of Justin Moore for Villanova. David McCormack or Mitch Lightfoot will be able to get lots of offensive rebounds and will have an easier time converting shots at the rim against a smaller Villanova team. Additionally, Justin Moore’s absence means Villanova will have to turn to lesser used players and will have just one primary shot creator in Collin Gillespie. Again, though, Villanova boosts their chances by playing a high variance game in shooting and allowing lots of 3’s with fewer possessions in a game. Unless Villanova shoots really well or Kansas goes cold, I think Kansas comes out on top.
Duke vs North Carolina
The Duke-Carolina Final Four matchup pits the 6th best team against the 15th best team according to my college basketball rankings. This matchup is very interesting because it includes the most balanced team remaining in the Final Four (UNC) against arguably the best team remaining (Duke).
Duke has been really good lately, but its been almost entirely due to their offense. The Duke offense is the 2nd best in the country using my SABER model and ranks 1st on KenPom. However, their defense has not been nearly as good, ranking 52nd in SABER and 45th on KenPom.
Over their last 10 games, North Carolina has been on fire. They have been the best team in the nation in their last 10 games, led by a top 10 offense and defense. North Carolina has been dominant in games against strong opponents, including Marquette, Duke, and Virginia. They also beat one of the best teams in Baylor during the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. Duke has also been really good. The problem with Duke is that they have a really good offense, but their defense has struggled lately. Their defense had poor performances against Syracuse, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Texas Tech. The Tar Heels have performed well against good defenses lately, so playing against a weak defense like Duke should not be an issue for them.
The number 1 Duke offense is ranked so high because of their efficient shooting and ball security. They have their 8th best 2-pt offense and the 29th best 3-pt offense. Duke should have no issues with turnovers against a Carolina defense that forces turnovers at one of the lowest rates. The factors where the Duke offense is at a disadvantage include rebounding and free throws as North Carolina will be fierce getting defensive rebounds and disciplined to not foul often.
North Carolina has scored over 85 points in 4 of their last 10 games. While a major reason for their scoring outbursts is their offensive efficiency, they also play at one of the fastest paces in college basketball, averaging 17 seconds per possession on both offense and defense. Carolina has two key advantages against Duke: limiting turnovers and getting 2nd chance points. By winning on turnovers and offensive rebounds, North Carolina will likely have more shots against Duke, which can help them overcome Duke’s prolific offense.
Duke pretty much has used a 6-man rotation in their recent games. Their rotation includes Wendell Moore, Paolo Banchero, Jeremy Roach, Trevor Keels, Mark Williams, and AJ Griffin. Mark Williams has been a large factor to Duke’s great offense, shooting over 77% at the rim and over 44% from mid-range. This mid-range game will be key since it may force Armando Bacot out of the paint and increase offensive rebounding opportunities. Duke also has 5 solid shooters. Banchero, Roach, and Keels can’t be left open on the perimeter, and Moore and Griffin are knockdown shooters. AJ Griffin will be an x-factor for Duke in this game. Griffin has shown the ability to create his own shot, but he isn’t involved in several possessions. If AJ Griffin can create his own shot at a higher usage, it would add another element to the Duke offense and would be a mismatch against Caleb Love or RJ Davis. Defensively, Duke is lead by Mark Williams, who blocks over 11% of opponents’ 2-point attempts. Duke’s pick and roll defense will be important against Carolina since it would give Carolina the opportunity to draw Williams outside of the paint, where he is best.
North Carolina also has a 6-man rotation, with Love, Davis, Bacot, Manek, and Black starting and Kerwin Walton coming off the bench. Love and Davis have been the keys for North Carolina over the tournament. Both have the ability to explode for 25+ points, serving as the main creators and efficient 3-point shooters. However, the most important player for UNC may be Armando Bacot. Bacot will need to keep up his offensive rebounding in order to produce easy 2nd chance points. He has gotten at least 4 offensive rebounds in each of his last 5 games, including 8 against UCLA and 8 against Saint Peter’s. He should have lots of opportunities against a Duke team that gives up lots of offensive rebounds. If Duke tries to cheat and double Bacot, he will have the option to kick out to the perimeter to one of UNC’s efficient shooters or pass to a cutter towards the rim.
Winner: North Carolina
I think that North Carolina wins against Duke and ends Coach K’s career in heartbreaking fashion. I believe that North Carolina’s trio of Caleb Love, RJ Davis, and Armando Bacot will be too strong for Duke’s defense. The Duke defense has survived several poor defensive performances during the tournament by improving their offense, but the offensive rebounding advantage for UNC could be their downfall. Additionally, North Carolina is full of shooters whereas Duke is led by 2 really good shooters and other average shooters. If Caleb Love, who is statistically one of UNC’s least efficient players, shoots well, the UNC offense will be close to unstoppable. Defensively, UNC will succeed if Paolo Banchero doesn’t shoot efficiently from 3 and if they contain AJ Griffin. Banchero has been shooting 53% from deep during Duke’s 4 NCAA tournament games, but I expect his percentage to regress towards his 33% season average, giving Duke less spacing. North Carolina just has to make sure they stick to AJ Griffin since he is one of the best shooters in the country. The pick and roll will be critical for both teams, since both will want to force the opponent’s big man out of the paint and make them switch onto a guard. Additionally, the high post play of the big men will be important since it will allow for cutting opportunities and open shots from either mid-range or the perimeter. I expect this matchup to be very close, but North Carolina has a small edge because they create more shooting opportunities through ball security and offensive rebounds. While Duke has been better over the course of the season, North Carolina’s hot streak should continue against Duke behind their superior offensive rebounding, spacing, and shot creation.
Using my college basketball model, I found the predicted scores for both final four games. My model has Kansas with a 52.5% chance of winning and Duke with a 60.4% chance. The model cannot account for the injury of Justin Moore, so it is likely underestimating Kansas’s true chance to win. As I previously stated, I think North Carolina will upset Duke. The UNC-Duke game could turn into a college basketball classic as it is projected to be a close, high scoring game between the two biggest rivals in the sport. The 2022 Final Four should be exciting with some of the best players in the nation, two close games, and a potential upset.