And yet, we've never been down this road. Duke and North Carolina have never squared off in the NCAA tournament, with a chapter set for Saturday that will add another dimension to this most historic of rivalries. Meanwhile, the specter of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing for the final weekend of his Hall of Fame career will be a central theme, as it has been throughout this tournament and throughout the 2021-22 season. Duke-UNC is a first, and Coach K's final ride is a "last."
ESPN's team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi discussed all the top storylines from Saturday's extravaganza to come, also making predictions for both national semifinal games.
Saturday's Final Four schedule:
- No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas, 6:09 p.m. ET (TBS)
- No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Duke, 8:49 p.m. ET (TBS)
Opinion on this Final Four field has been polarized between those who think this is an amazing group of teams and those who would counter that four blue bloods equate to either nausea or boredom. Which camp are you in, and does the other side have a point?
Medcalf: I don't mean to dismiss the boredom crowd, but fans can't be trusted in this argument. The myth about the NCAA tournament is that everybody wants to see David beat Goliath for three weeks. But I don't believe that's true. They want to see upsets on the first weekend. In New Orleans, these are the teams that the rest of the country is chasing. And, until this point, we've had some thrilling matchups. Saint Peter's sailed, New Mexico State surged and Miami made an Elite Eight run. As much as folks say they want to see those teams reach the Final Four every year, the numbers don't back that assertion. Ticket sales for Saturday's Duke-North Carolina game have hit record prices, not just because of the rivalry, but because most people want to see the blue bloods battle.
I was in New Orleans 10 years ago when Kentucky, Ohio State, Kansas and Louisville were all in the national semifinals. The complaints disappeared as soon as the first game began. And I think we'll see a similar development with these games, too. This is a compelling group of teams beyond the brand names. North Carolina has been one of the best teams in America over the past month. Villanova, when healthy, had been a force within the sport, too. Duke is the most talented team in America. And you could make the case that Kansas -- enter Remy Martin -- is playing better basketball than all of them. The blue bloods reaching this stage is a good thing for college basketball. I'm all for it.
Borzello: I want star power in the Final Four, I want big brands and big fan bases and sport-wide bragging rights at stake. So I'm all-in on this group of teams. I understand the argument about wanting new, fresh teams in the Final Four, but the boredom argument and the "it's basically college football" argument don't make a ton of sense to me. It's not like we get these four teams every year, and it's not like it's four 1-seeds in the Final Four. If this was college football's system, only one of these teams would have even made the Final Four. Duke hasn't been here since 2015, North Carolina hasn't been since 2017, this is Villanova's fourth Final Four since 1985 and Kansas' sixth Final Four in more than 30 years.
Part of the magic of the NCAA tournament is the idea of Cinderella, the potential for anyone to have a chance to cut down the nets on Monday night. And I loved the Saint Peter's run, I loved the Miami run, I loved all the upsets. But give me the biggest brands in the sport, the biggest coaches in the sport, the best players in the sport on the final weekend of the season.
Gasaway: I am here to bring about greater understanding between these two camps. Think of this year's Final Four as scrappy blue bloods. The label works best with a No. 8 seed like North Carolina. It wasn't too long ago that the Tar Heels were losing at home to Pittsburgh and being told confidently by observers that they would miss the tournament entirely. (Those observers should have been reading Bubble Watch, which never said this.) Villanova didn't "even" win the Big East this season. Duke was trounced at home in the season finale by UNC and then was trounced again by Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. Even a No. 1 seed like Kansas closed the regular season with two losses followed by two wins that came down to crunch time.
Yet here they all are. Yes, there are teams that are stronger than these four on paper. Those teams are sitting at home. In 2022, program strength has been a better predictor of bracket survival than team strength. Since the field expanded to 64 teams in the 1980s, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, for NCAA tournament wins. (Villanova is No. 13 and can tie Florida with a win Saturday.) These current Blue Devils, Tar Heels, Jayhawks and Wildcats are survivors, and they're doing their programs proud.
Lunardi: For the record, I'm not bored or nauseated. I think the storylines, matchups and range of outcomes are phenomenal. There is a realistic path for all four teams to win two games and cut down the nets, as well as an appealing narrative for each. What's not to like? If these programs aren't your cup of tea, stream a few innings of spring training baseball and we'll see you in November.
Are you ready to call North Carolina vs. Duke in the Final Four one of the important moments in college basketball history, or do you need to see the game first before you rule?
Medcalf: I think it's one of the top five moments in the history of the sport. I won't call it the "Game of the Century" like Houston and UCLA in 1968 and it's not Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird in 1979. But I think it's a step below that. It certainly feels like one of the greatest events in college basketball history. A good game would elevate that but the numbers will show that a lot of people tuned in to see this affair. There is a "you don't want to miss this" element to this game, and the last time we had that in the Final Four, in my opinion, Greg Oden and Ohio State were trying to dethrone Joakim Noah's Florida squad in 2007. But this is bigger than that because of the Coach K storyline and the teams involved.
I don't know if you can even compare this to another college basketball matchup. Feels more like Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali I at Madison Square Garden. There was basically a red carpet at that event and it seemed as if the whole world wanted to be in that building for that bout. Saturday feels like that for college basketball. Our sport is better on days like this. Let's hope the game matches the hype.
Borzello: One of the most important moments in college basketball history feels a little bit aggressive, at least right now. For me, it depends on the game itself. If it's a terrific game with a buzzer-beating ending, then we can revisit -- but if, say, Duke wins in a blowout, does anyone even remember it in 30 years? The potential of Coach K's final game and an unprecedented chapter in the biggest rivalry in the sport -- both of those things have added tremendous hype for this game. Duke possibly getting revenge for getting blown out in Coach K's last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium adds another layer.
But it's not 1 vs. 2 or two titans finally meeting after being on a collision course all season. Gonzaga vs. Baylor was on that pantheon last season -- and then Baylor easily won, so nobody considers that a classic game. Gonzaga vs. UCLA was not expected to be one of the greatest games in tournament history, but it's considered historic now because of the way the game was played and the way it ended. I need to wait and see before judging where Duke-UNC 2022 falls in the annals of the sport.
Gasaway: It's rare that we look back on a national semifinal and term it historic. Rare, but not impossible. I'd nominate last year's incredible Gonzaga win over UCLA, for one. Naturally, there are other examples from way back when, like Duke over UNLV in 1991 or, of course, NC State over UCLA in 1974. In other words, "historic" is a pretty high bar, and, personally, I want to see the game first before I toss that label around.
The Duke-UNC rivalry being exported to the Final Four is a wonderful start, certainly, but that alone won't be enough. It will need to be a great game, preferably one with a signature moment. It will also help if the winner goes on to capture the national title. If the Blue Devils or the Tar Heels are instead defeated soundly by either Kansas or Villanova on Monday night, the semifinal may not seem quite so significant in retrospect.
Lunardi: For me, it's more about Coach K than the Duke-Carolina rivalry. And that's plenty. If it was also the potential last game for a Dean Smith or Roy Williams, then we'd be talking "Game of the Century" type stuff. In the meantime, it's really only a seminal moment if North Carolina wins. That's Ali effectively ending the career of an equal or greater champion.
If Duke wins, then the story is Monday night and Monday night alone. Just as it was for John Wooden in San Diego all those years ago. The college basketball history books will say either "Mike Krzyzewski won his last game" or "lost his last game," not that he won his "next to last" game. Saturday is the bridge to history, not history itself. In other words, I don't think North Carolina is going to win.
How much do you expect Justin Moore's absence to hurt Villanova? Can the Wildcats win without him?
Medcalf: I think Villanova is facing the best team in New Orleans, and the Wildcats will play that game without their most talented player. The Wildcats are a better team with Moore. That's obvious. But the numbers back that claim. Per hooplens.com, Villanova commits turnovers on just 14% of its possessions and connects on 37% of its 3-point attempts with Moore on the floor.
Jay Wright can use Chris Arcidiacono and Bryan Antoine and he can even move Caleb Daniels into that spot but it won't be the same. Guard play will be a significant element of this game. Remy Martinand Ochai Agbaji are key members of the best backcourt in New Orleans. And I don't see how Villanova counters KU's strength with Moore sidelined. Can Villanova win without Moore? Saint Peter's might say yes, but I don't think so.
Medcalf score prediction: Kansas 77, Villanova 69
Borzello: It's an enormous loss for Villanova, and I think the one thing that has gotten overlooked when discussing Moore's absence is his ability on the defensive end of the floor. He is Villanova's second-best scorer and shot-maker, but he's also arguably the team's best individual defender and his strength, size and physicality make it difficult for opposing wings to get in a rhythm. Had he been healthy against Kansas, it's not hard to envision Agbaji struggling to get consistently clean looks against Nova.
I think Villanova can win without him, but I'm picking Kansas. The Wildcats have essentially played six players for most of the last few weeks, and now with Moore out, they're down to five. Caleb Daniels is a very good replacement, but now the bench takes an enormous hit. Antoine or Arcidiacono will have to step up in a big way. I think Villanova slows the game down to a crawl in an effort to win, but Kansas has too much size, too many weapons and too much experience.
Borzello score prediction: Kansas 64, Villanova 60
Gasaway: This is the single largest question in New Orleans, because we won't know the answer until we see Villanova in action. In tournament play, this has been the most perimeter-oriented offense at the Final Four (which is saying something, because North Carolina's been hoisting a good many 3s in its own right). Moore made as many tournament 3s as Collin Gillespie has, and Moore did so on nine fewer attempts. In short, Moore's been a very important part of what has been a very short Nova rotation up to now.
Now, this is hardly Jay Wright's first rodeo. Gillespie is the reigning Big East Player of the Year and Jermaine Samuels is your 2022 South Regional Most Outstanding Player. They can absolutely absorb more possessions and do so efficiently. I'm not writing off the Wildcats by any means, but the timing of Moore's injury does mean we need to see the next 10 or 12 minutes of Villanova basketball before we know exactly what we have here.
Gasaway score prediction: Kansas 66, Villanova 63
Lunardi: We've all looked pretty stupid in recent years underestimating Villanova. That said, I'm equally sure they're not turning Saturday's national semifinal into a four-on-four contest. Jay Wright is going to have to fill 35 minutes or so with someone far below Justin Moore's level. And that's with Collin Gillespie already playing on a leg-and-a-half. Was I the only one who saw the Wildcats spotting Gillespie extra-long breaks around the media timeouts?
This is an enormous challenge for Villanova, against an opponent already smarting for being a stepping stone to the Wildcats' two recent championships. The Cats somehow won their Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games with an offensive average of 56.5 PPG. I just don't see a scenario in which that is enough to beat the current iteration of Kansas.
Lunardi score prediction: Kansas 69, Villanova 61
How did North Carolina beat Duke at Cameron on March 5, and can the Tar Heels pull another upset using the same formula?
Medcalf: I think North Carolina's decision to play like the 2016-17Golden State Warriorsin the second half of that game is the simple answer. I don't think there is a team in America that would have defeated North Carolina that day. But something happened in UNC's game before that win, an 88-79 victory over Syracuse. That night, North Carolina started to take care of the ball. Beginning with that game, North Carolina has recorded more than 10 turnovers in just two games (a loss to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament and the overtime win against Baylor in the NCAA tournament). The Tar Heels have also recorded higher than a 14% turnover percentage in just two games. Against Duke last month, North Carolina recorded five turnovers (6.7% turnover rate).
It wasn't just the shooting stroke that hurt Duke. It was the fact that Hubert Davis and Co. didn't make the mistakes that Duke needed to cut into that deficit. And if they're the same team again -- the Tar Heels made 53% of their shots inside the arc and 39% of their 3-point attempts that night -- and they limit their turnovers, North Carolina can win again. But if we can acknowledge that this North Carolina team is not the same team from a month ago, then I also think it's prudent to recognize the same reality for Duke. The current version of the Blue Devils are confident and they know their roles. They're playing through Paolo Banchero and a rejuvenated Jeremy Roach is a catalyst. Mark Williams is playing over the top of any defense Duke encounters. They beat the best defense in America (Texas Tech) and outplayed an explosive Arkansas squad that eliminated Gonzaga. I think we will see a different game on Saturday.
Medcalf score prediction: Duke 83, North Carolina 80 (overtime)
Borzello: Hubert Davis made some really smart adjustments from the first game to the second game, like keeping Armando Bacot off of Paolo Banchero and out of foul trouble. In the first game, Bacot picked up two quick ones and the game was over in 10 minutes. It also helped that Carolina played one of the best offensive halves of basketball we've seen from anyone all season. Fifty-five points in 20 minutes? On the road in Coach K's final home game? It was an incredible performance. Caleb Love was terrific, RJ Davis was terrific, Brady Manek was in the midst of a tremendous run of games, Bacot was dominant inside.
So Carolina just needs all of that to happen again on Saturday! The Tar Heels are playing their best basketball of the season, at both ends of the floor. Their top-four scorers are performing at a very, very high level and their defense has been fantastic in the NCAA tournament. I think the key will be which of Bacot or Mark Williams can stay out of foul trouble, and then whether Caleb Love is good Caleb Love. When Love is making good decisions with the ball, hitting shots from the perimeter, putting pressure on the defense, he adds a different element to the Carolina offense. I'm leaning Duke, though. The Blue Devils have looked tougher, more engaged defensively and Jeremy Roach has taken their offense to a new level. Coach K is headed to the title game.
Borzello score prediction: Duke 82, North Carolina 76
Gasaway: North Carolina went nuts in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium and hung 55 points on the home team in 20 minutes. It's not every day that you're going to score 1.47 points per possession for an entire half of basketball, but the Tar Heels can certainly work from the same blueprint. UNC simply overwhelmed Duke in the paint after halftime in that game. The Heels made 15 shots inside the arc, Armando Bacot dunked three times and, meanwhile, Mark Williams recorded zero blocks in a little more than 12 minutes. The Duke we see before us today feels a good bit stronger than they were three-plus weeks ago, but you can bet Hubert Davis will at least try to go back to that same well one more time.
Gasaway score prediction: Duke 77, North Carolina 75
Lunardi: Why do we forget that Duke was leading at Cameron midway through the second half? Yes, North Carolina went nuts. Yes, the Tar Heels overwhelmed the Blue Devils at both ends of the floor. And, yes, they were far and away the better team that night.
But the reality is that Duke blinked. The young Blue Devils shrunk in what was, in retrospect, too big a moment for them. Something has obviously changed since then, a combination of tactics and destiny that has Mike Krzyzewski on the verge of perhaps the greatest ending in the history of college sports. The Tar Heels have changed, as well, but we've likely already seen their peak. The Blue Devils are still discovering theirs, which is an awfully enviable position for the first weekend of April.
Lunardi score prediction: Duke 82, North Carolina 76
Who will be the star of Saturday's Final Four games?
Medcalf: I think it will be Paolo Banchero. Entering the year, he and Chet Holmgren were the five-stars who attracted the bulk of the attention. As Jabari Smith, Jaden Ivey and Johnny Davis emerged, however, it was clear that Banchero would have competition for that No. 1 slot in this summer's NBA draft. But he has been a devastating player for opposing defenses in the NCAA tournament. He is money from everywhere right now. His 3-point shots are falling. His midrange game is silky. And you can't do anything but foul him if he gets near the rim. In New Orleans, I think Banchero will lead Duke to the national championship game and make his case as a potential No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft.
Borzello: I'll take Ochai Agbaji. His 3-point play early in the second half against Miami jump-started his performance against the Hurricanes, and I think he carries that momentum into Saturday. Agbaji hadn't played well in the NCAA tournament up until that point, averaging 10.3 points and shooting 33.3% in the first three games of the tournament -- including a five-point performance in the Sweet 16 against Providence. But he woke up against Miami and I think Villanova will really feel the loss of Justin Moore in this matchup. The Wildcats do switch everything, but someone with Moore's size and strength would've caused issues for Agbaji.
Gasaway:Remy Martin, and he's not even a starter! Martin has accounted for 28% of KU's tournament shot attempts during his minutes, making him the No. 1 player at the Final Four in terms of workload on offense. If anything, Bill Self may want his sixth man to shoot even more often: Martin has connected on 42% of his 3s and 59% of his 2s in the Jayhawks' four wins. Don't be fooled by the nine-point outing against Miami in a game that Kansas had well in hand for the balance of the second half. On the whole, Martin's been outstanding. Villanova will be doing its level best to try to stop him -- and Agbaji and Christian Braun. No easy task.
Lunardi: Give me Duke's Mark Williams. The 7-foot sophomore has been the X factor for the Blue Devils in the tournament, nearly averaging a double-double (14.5 PPG, 8.8 RPG) and missing only five shots in 30 attempts. Throw in 16 blocks in four games and that is some seriously efficient production that will be essential against the lengthy Carolina frontcourt.
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