So much for a men’s NCAA tournament defined by upsets. While Saint Peter’s’ Cinderella run to the Elite Eight captured the attention of the country, four of college basketball’s biggest powerhouse programs kept quietly advancing through the bracket. As midnight finally struck for the Peacocks in the regional final, we’re left with a Final Four made up exclusively of blue bloods.
On the left side of the bracket, we have the first ever NCAA tournament meeting between Duke and North Carolina in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season. The right side features Kansas vs. Villanova in a matchup between two of the sport’s most consistent programs over the last decade. If this isn’t the most anticipated Final Four ever, it sure feels like it’s close.
Before the Blue Devils, Tar Heels, Jayhawks, and Wildcats embark on New Orleans, we decided to rank the field by which team has the best chance to win it all.
4. No. 8 North Carolina
Hubert Davis’ first season at North Carolina felt like a bust when Duke handed the Tar Heels a 20-point loss in Chapel Hill in early February. It was UNC’s fourth loss by at least 20 points on the season, and seemed to signal that the Heels just didn’t have the goods this year despite a talented roster. It wasn’t until Carolina played Duke again — this time for Coach K’s last ever home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium — that the season started to turn around. With so many former Blue Devils in attendance, the Tar Heels stole a win to send off Krzyzewski on a sour note.
Since then, North Carolina has played like one of the best teams in the country. It’s only fitting that UNC’s shocking run to the Final Four now faces its ultimate test: the first ever tournament meeting with Duke and the chance to send Coach K home as a loser in his final game.
UNC will need to play its A-game to beat the Blue Devils on the sport’s biggest stage. That starts with sophomore guard Caleb Love catching fire from three-point range, junior big man Armando Bacot dominating the paint, and Leaky Black playing lockdown defense on Duke’s perimeter stars. The biggest key for Carolina might be senior wing Brady Manek, a 6’9 Oklahoma transfer who has played his best ball of the season at the end of the year. This is a dream matchup for the Tar Heels entering the Final Four — the weight of the world on Duke’s shoulders, with UNC getting the opportunity to grab bragging rights forever.
3. No. 2 Villanova Wildcats
There are so many reasons why this Villanova team shouldn’t succeed. Unlike Jay Wright’s recent national title teams, they don’t have a single projected NBA draft pick on the roster or a five-star recruit in the rotation. Wright played only six players all year — and one of them, Justin Moore, just suffered a devastating injury in their tight Elite Eight win over Houston. And yet here are the Wildcats, in the Final Four for the third time in the last six tournaments.
Nova’s first two trips to this round under Wright resulted in national championships in 2016 and 2018. At this point, it’s obviously foolish to dismiss the Wildcats’ chances simply because they lack the overwhelming on-paper talent we’re used to seeing at this program. The names may be different and a little less intimidating, but this Villanova team executes every bit as well as Wright’s best squads. Villanova just won an Elite Eight game where they shot 28.8 percent from the field and finished with fewer rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks than Houston. Nova won this game the way they’ve been winning all year: grinding out possessions at an ultra slow tempo, disciplined and attentive closeouts on opposing shooters (Houston went 1-for-20 from three), and being money from the line. Villanova has been the best free throw shooting team in the country this year, and in the biggest moment of their season they went 15-for-15 from the foul line.
Moore’s injury is a huge blow to an already thin rotation, but don’t expect anything about Villanova’s game plan to change. This program is as good as ever, regardless of who is on the floor.
2. No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks
Remy Martin was hailed as the biggest transfer of the offseason in college basketball when he left Arizona State for Kansas in his final year of eligibility. The 6-foot point guard’s career with the Sun Devils was so impressive that he was named Big 12 preseason Player of the Year before he ever played a game in the conference. Despite so much preseason hype, Martin got off to a shaky at KU, batting both injuries and bouts of inconsistency while coming off the bench behind Dajuan Harris.
Martin found his place in the rotation again as Kansas entered the Big 12 tournament. He’s been on fire ever since, giving the Jayhawks a necessary injection of both scoring and playmaking, Martin’s last season emergence solidified KU’s closing lineup and has been the driving force behind this Final Four run. All this Kansas team needed was a point guard, and they finally have one.
Kansas has two potential first round draft picks on the wing in Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun. They have a dynamic four man in Jalen Wilson who can score at all levels and create his own look off the bounce. Then there’s David McCormack, the bruising center who lacks foot speed but can overpower almost anyone in the post. That five-man lineup gives KU a chance to compete against anyone. It’s gotten them this far. Bill Self’s second national title is only two wins away.
1. No. 2 seed Duke Blue Devils
The fairytale ending Mike Krzyzewski dreamed of in his final season seemed like it just wasn’t going to happen for Duke entering the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils were blown out by archrival North Carolina in Coach K’s last ever home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in front of so many former players. Then they got crushed by an underdog Virginia Tech team in the ACC tournament title game. The Blue Devils were ranked as the worst of the No. 2 seeds by the committee on Selection Sunday, paired in the same region with national title favorite Gonzaga. Duke haters were ready to celebrate one more tournament exit by Coach K before his retirement.
So much for that. From the minute this tournament started, Duke has looked like the biggest and baddest team in the field. This roster always had the talent to go on a deep tournament run, and after a season full of growing pains, it is now playing up to its potential at the perfect time. If anyone other than Duke ultimately cuts down the nets in New Orleans, it’s going to qualify as an upset.
Coach K’s last star-studded freshman class is living up to the hype. Paolo Banchero is an elite shot creator for himself and others at 6’10, 250 pounds. A.J. Griffin poured in 18 points in the Elite Eight win against Arkansas, showcasing his excellent off-ball shooting skills. Perhaps most importantly of all, sophomore Jeremy Roach has answered Duke’s point guard problem and provided clutch performances all tournament long. Credit Coach K, too, for pushing the right buttons defensively by relying on a zone defense for long stretches.
It’s incredible how quickly Duke turned this season around. At this point, it really feels like one more national title for Coach K is meant to be.