NEW ORLEANS — The Kansas Jayhawks kicked off the 2022 Final Four on Saturday night, taking a 10-0 lead and keeping the Villanova Wildcats at bay the rest of the way in an 81-65 win at Caesars Superdome. The win puts KU in Monday night’s title game for the first time since 2012, with a chance to lift the NCAA trophy for the first time since losing to Memphis for the 2008 championship.
The contest provided a prelude to Saturday’s highly anticipated Game 2 between the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels – the first meeting of the NCAA Tournament between the Tobacco Road rivals and the possible final act for the Duke head coach and Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski on what will be the last weekend of his college basketball career.
ESPN’s team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi discussed what went well for Kansas on Saturday, what didn’t work for Villanova and the impact of a Kansas victory over an ACC school in the Finals on Monday night.
What was key to Kansas’ victory over Villanova?
Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack: the star of the Jayhawks, and their X factor throughout the season (throughout the career?).
Agbaji came out of a brief slump in the second half of the Elite Eight win over Miami, and that momentum continued on Saturday night. He came out of the gates shooting, hitting two 3s in the first three minutes and going 4 for 4 from the deepest of the first eight minutes. Collin Gillespie turning in slowed Agbaji towards the end of the first half, but two more grueling 3s to keep Villanova at arm’s length in the second half were huge.
McCormack was always going to be key against Villanova. The Wildcats just didn’t have the size to handle him, so it was a question of whether he could avoid fouls, stay on the court and be effective. And it didn’t take long for Kansas to make its intentions known. The Jayhawks were forcing the ball into the post at McCormack early and often; he scored two baskets in the first two minutes and touched almost every possession. He had 13 points in the first 11 minutes. When Villanova started causing defensive problems for Kansas by attacking McCormack with smaller players, the big man responded by going to work on the other end. Agbaji and McCormack finished with a combined 46 points. — Borzello
What surprised you most about the Jayhawks’ performance?
If you could tell KU fans in November that their national semi-final hero would be McCormack, they would be more than surprised. Stunned might be a better word. There have been long discussions throughout the season about whether the Jayhawks should go small. For one night, at least, McCormack went really big on Villanova. The surprise in the surprise is that it started right away. The opening minutes of the game were a blizzard from Agbaji 3 and messages posted to McCormack, which was just too much for the Wildcats to handle. The poster dunk, picking up 25 points on 10 of 12 shots – it all came down to a magnificent performance. — Gasaway
How does Kansas match Duke and North Carolina?
Unsurprisingly, the Jayhawks are probably a better match for North Carolina than Duke. Part of that stems from Mark Williams’ defensive dominance around the rim for the Blue Devils. He’s capable of incapacitating McCormack on his own — and given how hard McCormack has played in Kansas wins over the past two seasons, that would be a problem for the Jayhawks. Duke is also vulnerable against teams that can pull Williams off the basket and force the Blue Devils to shield for longer stretches in space.
In terms of personnel, the Jayhawks have had big men down in McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot to launch North Carolina’s Armando Bacot. They have Jalen Wilson, who is big enough and versatile enough to deal with Brady Manek on the pick-and-pops that North Carolina likes to run. I think the Tar Heels defensive aggression on the wings with Caleb Love and Leaky Black could cause problems for Agbaji and Christian Braun though. None of this is to say Kansas can’t beat Duke. It’s just potentially a tougher game than North Carolina. — Borzello
What will be the legacy of this Villanova team?
The Wildcats continue to demonstrate the rarity of basketball excellence without high-profile football. Villanova and Gonzaga are the only truly elite programs in this category.
The legacy of Jay Wright and the Wildcats is assured regardless of this Final Four result. In what was arguably the most limited team of its four to reach the national semifinals, Wright did another masterful job winning the Big East Tournament and the NCAA South Regional.
The 2021-22 Cats should and will be celebrated among the most beloved teams in program history. And when they do one day build a statue for Wright, Gillespie will join Scottie Reynolds, Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson as the personal Mount Rushmore coach. — Monday
What would be the historic impact of a Kansas win on Monday night?
Bill Self did everything there was to do in Kansas, but knows the lone national championship in 2008 falls short of 15 Big 12 titles and nine No. 1 seeds in the tournament NCAA. Cutting the Nets in New Orleans definitely changes that narrative.
The list of coaches with multiple NCAA championships is short. And a fourth trophy for the Kansas program would put the Jayhawks behind just five other schools on the all-time list, one of which — North Carolina (6) or Duke (5) — would be their victim Monday.
It says here that the Jayhawks are due. They were the best team in the country two years ago when COVID-19 derailed their tournament chances, and they could very well be the best team left in 2022. — Monday