Game predictions, top storylines and why you shouldn’t hate on the blue bloods in the 2022 Final Four
The men’s version of the 2022 Final Four brings a heavy dose of the familiar, with just a touch of the unique. When the Duke Blue Devils, Kansas Jayhawks, North Carolina Tar Heels and Villanova Wildcats descend upon the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans on Saturday, it will be a confluence of four programs that have won a combined 17 national championships, been a part of 61 Final Fours and are three of the four winningest programs in national championship history. These are the brands you’re familiar with if you watch college basketball.
Yet, we have never been down this road. North Carolina and Duke have never met in the NCAA tournament. Saturday’s chapter will add another dimension of this historic rivalry. 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 last 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. 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 side are you on?
Medcalf: I don’t mean to dismiss the boredom crowd, but fans can’t be trusted in this argument. The NCAA tournament is a myth that everyone wants to see David defeat Goliath for three consecutive weeks. But that is not true. They want to see upsets the first weekend. These are the teams New Orleans is following. We’ve seen some exciting matchups up to this point. Saint Peter’s won, New Mexico State won and Miami reached the Elite Eight. Despite people claiming they want to see these teams reach the Final Four every single year, the numbers don’t support that claim. The record ticket sales for Saturday’s Duke-North Carolina match have reached record levels, not only because of the rivalry but because most people want the blue bloods to battle.
I was in New Orleans 10 years ago when Kentucky, Ohio State, Kansas and Louisville were all in the national semifinals. The complaints vanished as soon as the first game began. These games will also see a similar evolution, I believe. These are compelling teams that transcend brand names. Over the past month, North Carolina has been among the top teams in America. Villanova was a force in the sport when it was healthy. The most talented American team is Duke. And you could make the case that Kansas — enter Remy Martin — is playing better basketball than all of them. This is a positive thing for college basketball. It’s something I support.
Borzello: I want star power in the Final Four, I want big brands and big fan bases and sport-wide bragging rights at stake. I’m all in on this team of teams. While I can understand the argument for wanting new, fresh teams in Final Four, the boredom argument, and the “it’s basically College Football” argument don’t make much sense to me. It’s not as if we get four teams each year and it’s not as if there are four 1-seeds at the Final Four. If college football was the system, only one of these four teams would have made it to 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 NCAA tournaments is the idea of Cinderella. Anyone can have a chance at cutting down the nets on Monday night. I loved Saint Peter’s run, the Miami run, and all the upsets. I want the biggest brands, the biggest coaches, and the best players on the last weekend of the season.
Gasaway: I am here to bring about greater understanding between these two camps. This year’s Final Four can be described as scrappy bluebloods. A No. North Carolina is a No. 8 seed. It wasn’t long ago that the Tar Heels were losing at Pittsburgh and were being assured by observers that they would not make it to the tournament. (Those observers should have read Bubble Watch, which never stated this.) Villanova didn’t win the Big East this season. UNC defeated Duke in the season finale. Virginia Tech lost the ACC title game. Even a No. Kansas, a No. 1 seed, finished the regular season with two losses and two wins.
But they are all there. There are other teams that are stronger than these. These teams are 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. For NCAA tournament wins, 1, 2, and 3 are respectively. (Villanova is the No. 13 and can tie Florida with a win Saturday.) The current Blue Devils (Tar Heels, Jayhawks, Wildcats) are survivors and doing a great job.
Lunardi: For the record, I’m not bored or nauseated. The storylines, matchups, and variety of outcomes are amazing. Each team has a realistic path to win two games and reduce the nets. There’s also an appealing narrative for each. What’s not to love? If you don’t like these programs, you can stream a few innings from spring training baseball. We’ll be seeing you in November.
Relive some of the most memorable finishes in the UNC-Duke rivalry, set to reignite Saturday, February 5 in the Dean Dome.
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. It’s still a step above that. It’s certainly one of the most memorable events in college basketball history. While a good game would raise that, the numbers will show that many people tuned in to watch this event. 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. This is more because of Coach K’s storyline and the teams involved.
I don’t think you could even compare this to another college basketball matchup. It feels more like Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali II at Madison Square Garden. It was almost like there was a red carpet at the event, and it seemed that everyone wanted to be there for that bout. Saturday felt like college basketball. This is a great day for college basketball. Let’s all hope that the game lives up to the hype.
Borzello: One of the most important moments in college basketball history feels a little bit aggressive, at least right now. It all depends on the game. 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? There is tremendous anticipation for this game due to the possibility of Coach K’s last game and the unprecedented chapter in the greatest rivalry in the sport. Another layer is the possibility that Duke will get revenge for Coach K’s loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But this is not 1 vs. 2 or 2 titans finally meeting after being on a collision track all season. Gonzaga vs. Baylor was on the pantheon last year — and then Baylor easily beat it, so nobody considers that an iconic game. Although Gonzaga vs. UCLA wasn’t expected to be the greatest tournament game, it’s now considered historic because of how it was played and the ending. I need to wait and see before judging where Duke-UNC 2022 falls in the annals of the sport.
Stanford Steve explains why the first-half under is the best bet to make in Villanova’s Final Four matchup against Kansas.
Gasaway: It’s rare that we look back on a national semifinal and term it historic. It’s rare, but not impossible. For one, I would nominate the incredible Gonzaga win last year over UCLA. Naturally, there are other examples from way back when, like Duke over UNLV in 1991 or, of course, NC State over UCLA in 1974. To put it another way, “historic” is a high bar. Personally, I want to see the game before I throw that label around.
While the Duke-UNC rivalry is great, it won’t be enough. It will need to be a great match, with a memorable moment. It will be a great help if the winner wins the national title. The semifinal may not be as significant if the Blue Devils or Tar Heels are defeated by Villanova or Kansas on Monday night.
Lunardi: For me, it’s more about Coach K than the Duke-Carolina rivalry. That’s a lot. If it were also the last game for Roy Williams or Dean Smith, then we’d be talking about “Game of the Century” stuff. It’s only a moment of significance if North Carolina wins. Ali effectively ends the career of a champion equal or greater.
If Duke wins, then the story ends on Monday night and Monday night alone. Just like it was for John Wooden in San Diego many years ago. The college basketball history books will either say “Mike Krzyzewski lost his last game” or “Mike Krzyzewski won it.” This does not mean that he won his “next game”. Saturday is the bridge to historical record, not history itself. I don’t believe North Carolina will win.
Seth Greenberg explains why Villanova may have a path to victory vs. Kansas.
How much do you expect Justin Moore‘s absence to hurt Villanova? Can the Wildcats win with him out?
Medcalf: I think Villanova is facing the best team in New Orleans, and the Wildcats will play that game without their most talented player. Moore is a better player for the Wildcats. That’s obvious. The numbers support this 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. This game will have a lot of guard play. Remy Martin and Ochai Agbaji are key members of the best backcourt in New Orleans. With Moore out, I don’t see Villanova being able to counter KU’s strength. Can Villanova win with Moore out? Saint Peter’s might think so, but I doubt it.
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. Villanova’s second-best shot-maker and scorer, but he is also the team’s best individual defender. His strength, size, and physicality make it difficult to find a rhythm for opposing wings. Agbaji would have struggled to get clean looks against Nova if he was healthy.
I think Villanova can win even without him, but Kansas is my choice. For the most part, the Wildcats have played six players over the last few weeks. Now, they are down to five players. Caleb Daniels is an excellent replacement, but now the bench is taking a huge hit. Antoine or Arcidiacono must step up. Villanova may slow down the game in an effort to win, but Kansas is too big, too experienced, and too many weapons.
Borzello score prediction: Kansas 64, Villanova 60
Seth Greenberg breaks down how North Carolina isn’t facing the same pressure Duke is in their Final Four matchup.
Gasaway: This is the single largest question in New Orleans, because we won’t know the answer until we see Villanova in action. This has been the most perimeter-oriented offense in tournament play (which is a big deal, as North Carolina has been making a lot of 3s). Moore made as many tournament 3s as Collin Gillespie has, and Moore did so on nine fewer attempts. Moore has been an important part of what has been a short Nova rotation.
This is not 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 absorb more possessions and do it 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. I’m not sure they’re turning Saturday’s national semifinal into an eight-on-four match. Jay Wright is going to have to fill 35 minutes or so with someone far below Justin Moore’s level. With Collin Gillespie already on a leg-and a half, that’s a lot. Did I see the Wildcats giving Gillespie extra-long breaks during media timeouts? This is a huge challenge for Villanova against an opponent who is already smart for being a steppingstone 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 don’t see any scenario where that would be enough to beat Kansas.
Lunardi score prediction: Kansas 69, Villanova 61
Vince Carter says Hubert Davis’ UNC is hitting its peak at the right time before facing Duke.
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 2016-17 Golden State Warriors in the second half of that game is the simple answer. I don’t believe there is any American team that would have defeated North Carolina on that day. But something happened in UNC’s game before that win, an 88-79 victory over Syracuse. North Carolina began to take care of its ball that night. 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. North Carolina had five turnovers against Duke last month (6.7% turnover rate).
It wasn’t just the shooting that hurt Duke. Duke was not the only one to blame. It was Hubert Davis and Co. who didn’t make the errors that Duke needed. 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. If we can admit that this North Carolina team has changed from a month ago, then it is prudent to recognize the same reality in Duke. The current Blue Devils are confident and 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 Texas Tech’s best defense and outplayed an aggressive Arkansas team that eliminated Gonzaga. I expect a different game 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 helped that Carolina had one of the most impressive offensive halves of basketball this season. Fifty-five points in 20 minutes? Coach K’s last home game on the road? It was an amazing 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 needs all that to happen again Saturday! The Tar Heels are playing their best basketball this season, on both ends of the court. Their top four scorers are playing at an extremely high level. They have also been defending well in the NCAA tournament. The key is whether Mark Williams or Bacot can keep out of foul trouble and then whether Caleb Love will be good Caleb Love. Love adds an extra element to the Carolina offense by making smart decisions with the ball, hitting shots from outside the line, and putting pressure on the defense. However, I am leaning towards Duke. The Blue Devils have been more aggressive and engaged defensively, and Jeremy Roach has elevated their offense to a whole new level. Coach K is heading to the title game.
Borzello score prediction: Duke 82, North Carolina 76
Check out the best plays from Kansas’ Remy Martin from the 2021-2022 Jayhawks season.
Gasaway: North Carolina went nuts in the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium and hung 55 points on the home team in 20 minutes. You don’t score 1. every day. 47 points per possession for an entire half of basketball, but the Tar Heels can certainly work from the same blueprint. After halftime, UNC easily defeated Duke in the paint. 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 today feels stronger than they did three weeks ago. But, you can bet that Hubert Davis will try to get back to the same spot 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? North Carolina went crazy. Yes, the Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils on both ends of the court. They were, indeed, the superior team that night.
But, the truth is that Duke blinks. In retrospect, it was too big a moment for the young Blue Devils. Mike Krzyzewski is on the verge to the greatest college sports ending in history thanks to a combination of destiny and tactics. Although the Tar Heels have also changed, we have likely already seen their peak. Blue Devils are still finding theirs, which is a very enviable position for the first weekend in April.
Lunardi score prediction: Duke 82, North Carolina 76
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. The No. 1 spot in the NBA draft this summer was open to Banchero. He has been a formidable player for opposing defenses during the NCAA tournament. He is money from all corners right now. His 3-point shots are falling. His midrange game plays smooth. You can’t help but foul him when he gets close to the rim. I believe Banchero will take Duke to the national championship and make his case for being the No. 1 pick in New Orleans. 1. The NBA draft pick of the summer. Borzello: I’ll take Ochai Agbaji. His 3-point performance against Miami in the second half was a big boost. I believe he will carry 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. Although the Wildcats switch everything, Agbaji would have problems with Moore’s strength and size. 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. Martin was the No. 1 player in offense workload at the Final Four. 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. The nine-point win against Miami was not surprising considering Kansas had the game in its hands for the remainder of the second half. Martin has been exceptional overall. Villanova will be doing its level best to try to stop him — and Agbaji and Christian Braun. It’s not an 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.
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. The No. 1 spot in the NBA draft this summer was open to Banchero. He has been a formidable player for opposing defenses during the NCAA tournament. He is money from all corners right now. His 3-point shots are falling. His midrange game plays smooth. You can’t help but foul him when he gets close to the rim. I believe Banchero will take Duke to the national championship and make his case for being the No. 1 pick in New Orleans. 1. The NBA draft pick of the summer.
Borzello: I’ll take Ochai Agbaji. His 3-point performance against Miami in the second half was a big boost. I believe he will carry 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. Although the Wildcats switch everything, Agbaji would have problems with Moore’s strength and size.
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. Martin was the No. 1 player in offense workload at the Final Four. 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. The nine-point win against Miami was not surprising considering Kansas had the game in its hands for the remainder of the second half. Martin has been exceptional overall. Villanova will be doing its level best to try to stop him — and Agbaji and Christian Braun. It’s not an 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.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.