After Saturday evening’s games, half of the Final Four is now set. The 11 seed Loyola-Chicago kept their Cinderella run alive by defeating 9 Kansas State. Then 3rd seed Michigan was able to finish off a hard-fought game against the 9th seeded Florida State Seminoles. Sunday’s Elite Eight games will consist of much more conventional seeds for this juncture in the tournament. The contests will match up 1 seed Villanova against 3 seed Texas Tech followed by 1 seed Kansas squaring off with 2nd seeded Duke.
1 Villanova v 3 Texas Tech
Both Villanova and Texas Tech advanced to the Elite Eight without much drama. Both of these team’s games were each decided by double digits. However, I am hopeful and expecting this meeting to be much closer.
Villanova defeated West Virginia by a score of 90 to 78. The Wildcats had a very hot shooting night, making 13 of 24 attempts from three. Villanova has remained hot from beyond the arc for nearly the entire season, and have made 44 triples during just the tournament. Also during this game, they held the Mountaineers to just 38% from the field. Those two aspects of the game are something Villanova will look to carry over into their meeting with Texas Tech. I still believe that Villanova is the most complete team in the tournament. With leaders like point guard Jalen Brunson and future lottery pick Mikal Bridges, the Wildcats have a core that most teams cannot match. Coach Jay Wright will look to these leaders to continue stepping up in order to send Villanova back to the Final Four.
Texas Tech knocked off Purdue 78-65 Friday night. With that victory, the Red Raiders secured their first trip to the Elite Eight in program history. Missing 7’2 center Isaac Haas, the Boilermakers were hampered both offensively and defensively. Without the massive Haas to worry about, Texas Tech was able to clamp down on defense in the second half and made a habit of getting to the free throw line.
Up to this point, Texas Tech has played a great tournament. They are led by All-Big 12 point guard Keenan Evans who averages 17 points per game. Around Evans is a very solid and athletic team that plays a defense-first style of basketball. The biggest key to a victory against Villanova is slowing down their three-point barrage. This will be their biggest test of the season; however, I have no doubt that coach Chris Beard will have his team ready. Tech’s stout defense will have its hands full with Villanova’s experienced stars, but they have yet to show any fear of being on the big stage. Because of that, I highly doubt that they will be cowering come game time on Sunday.
1 Kansas v 2 Duke
Finally, the basketball world is given a game between two historic NCAA basketball powers during this year’s tournament. Kansas and Duke are two of the most prominent, well-known, and historically successful teams throughout the sport. This match-up will have two great coaches and tons of NBA talent. Whichever one of these teams advance to the Final Four will have had to play at a tremendous level in order to stay alive.
Kansas jumped out to a 13 point halftime lead but had to hold on for a 4 point victory against Clemson on Friday. For the first time since the regular season, Kansas had the unrestricted services of starting center Udoka Azubuike. The big man gave his team a big advantage down low scoring 14 points and adding 11 rebounds.
Even with Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham, I believe Azubuike is the biggest factor in determining Kansas’s effectiveness against Duke. The Blue Devils are led by 6’11 freshman superstar Marvin Bagley III. Azubuike will have to play a great game defensively to slow down the athletic, high-scoring Bagley. During the tournament and regular season, Kansas often hung its hat on their three-point shooting ability. The ability to knock down shots against a primarily zone Duke team will be crucial. The Blue Devils have 5 first round draft picks starting, but they are not very deep off the bench. If Kansas can go inside to Azubuike and break down the defense off the dribble they may be able to get Duke into some foul trouble. That will be something to watch between these two blue blood programs.
Like I hinted on, Duke is arguably the most talented team in the nation. They start five guys who are projected to be first-round draft picks this season including 2 in the top ten (Bagley and Wendell Carter). That ridiculous collection of talent overwhelms lesser opponents, but it won’t be that easy against Kansas. Kansas has several high-quality players of its own along with a roster full of guys with several years of experience.
I look for Duke to get the ball inside to Carter and Bagley in an attempt to wear down the Kansas center, Udoka Azubuike. I also expect Duke’s senior leader, Grayson Allen, to take charge of his team if things aren’t going well early on for the Blue Devils. Nonetheless, Duke’s offense is one of the toughest teams in the country to slow down. Carter and Bagley are beasts inside and can also score out of the paint. Plus, the Blue Devils have sharpshooters Allen and freshman Gary Trent Jr. This versatility makes them very hard to stop once they get going. As long as Duke can match that level on defense, they will be a very difficult team to defeat.