Starting 5: Final Four Extravaganza, picking an NCAA Tournament champion
Welcome back to the Starting 5. The Starting 5 is written multiple times per week by Adam Spencer to keep you up-to-date on all the news and events in the world of college hoops. You can follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamSpencer4 and @BlueChipGrit.
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1. Opening tipoff
This time of year is always bittersweet. Yes, we’re close to crowning a champion in the men’s basketball world. But, there are only 3 games left in the NCAA Tournament.
Frankly, I’m thankful for the NIT this year, as I’m very invested in Texas A&M, a team I’ve consistently argued should have been participating in the field of 68 this season.
Then, on Saturday, the Final Four figures to be one of the best in recent history. We have a rivalry game between North Carolina and Duke, which is somehow the first time they’ve ever met in March Madness. Then, on the other side of the bracket, Kansas and Villanova will square off in a battle of schools with 3 national titles a piece.
It’s crazy to think that UNC is going for its 7th title, Duke is going for its 6th (all under Mike Krzyzewski) and Villanova and Kansas are each going for their 4th championships.
Today, we’re going to do something a little different for the Starting 5. I’m going to rank a few things in today’s column. Hopefully you like it! First, let’s start with the top players.
2. Best players remaining in tournament
Now that there are only 4 teams left competing for a national title, there are some elite players hoping to cut down the nets in New Orleans. There’s a potential No. 1 pick, a couple of lottery contenders and some other incredible college basketball players. Here’s how I’d rank the 5 best players remaining in the field:
- Paolo Banchero, Duke – This is an obvious one. Banchero started the year as a potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick. He slipped a bit during the regular season, but he’s been an absolute stud during the NCAA Tournament thus far. He is shooting 3s confidently, knocking down insane jump shots, making the right passes, rebounding – everything you want to see an elite player do.
- Ochai Agbaji, Kansas – Agbaji is another player who has definitely boosted his draft stock this March. He had a great regular season, but now that he’s on the game’s biggest stage, he’s stepped his game up a notch to match the intensity.
- Armando Bacot, North Carolina – Bacot is a double-double machine. He just had 20 points and 22 rebounds in the Tar Heels’ dominant victory over Saint Peter’s. He’s such a consistent big man that he’s borderline unstoppable. Mark Williams is going to have his hands full stopping Bacot in the paint on Saturday night.
- Collin Gillespie, Villanova – Gillespie does everything well on the basketball court. He leads Villanova in points per game (15.6), assists (3.3), 3-point shooting (40.9%) and free-throw percentage (90.5%). If Kansas can stop Gillespie, it will almost certainly take down the Wildcats. The problem? Not many teams can stop Gillespie, the do-it-all senior.
- Brady Manek, North Carolina – Manek picked a great time to play his best basketball of the year. He looks like Larry Bird out there on the court and his play has helped North Carolina to the Final Four, so perhaps we should start calling him “Brady Legend.”
It was really tough leaving Mark Williams of Duke off this list, especially with the way he’s played during the NCAA Tournament thus far. But, the fact that he’s probably No. 6 in these rankings shows just how deep the Final Four field really is!
3. Ranking the Final Four teams
Our Final Four is set, and there’s plenty of blue-blood name recognition heading to New Orleans. Two ACC teams are still in the field, along with a Big East team and a Big 12 squad. How do those teams rank? Here’s how I’d order them heading into Saturday’s semifinals:
- Duke – There’s an old saying that freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around. That seems to be especially true for Duke freshmen Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin. They’ve been magnificent this March. Banchero is working his way back into the No. 1 overall pick debate ahead of the 2022 NBA Draft. Duke looks unbeatable at the moment, and that’s a scary thought entering Coach K’s last Final Four run.
- North Carolina – UNC’s starting 5 can match up with anyone. RJ Davis and Caleb Love can be dynamic on any given night. Armando Bacot is one of the most consistent bigs in the game. Leaky Black is a solid defender who makes the right play more often than not. And, Brady Manek is playing some of his best basketball at exactly the right time.
- Kansas – Yes, Kansas is the No. 1 seed in this tournament, but I have the Jayhawks in the No. 3 spot because I just don’t think they’re as deep as Duke and North Carolina. The Jayhawks are one game where David McCormack gets in foul trouble away from being in danger of going home. Don’t get me wrong – this Kansas squad is elite. It has proven that multiple times in the past couple of weeks. But, every team is elite at this point, and I don’t think the Jayhawks quite stack up with their ACC counterparts.
- Villanova – What might have been if Justin Moore didn’t get hurt? That’s what the Wildcats will be asking themselves unless they pull off a miracle and win the national championship. I don’t see them making it past Kansas without perhaps their second-best player on the court, though.
Next, let’s rank the coaches who have gotten their teams to this point.
4. Ranking the Final Four coaches
Sixty-eight coaches made it to the NCAA Tournament this year. Some of the top mid-major coaches in the tourney have already landed bigger jobs at power conference schools. Now, though, only 4 coaches remain. We have one (Mike Krzyzewski) in his 42nd year at his current school and one (Hubert Davis) in his first.
So, how do the coaches stack up against one another? Here’s how I’d rank the Final Four coaches:
- Mike Krzyzewski, Duke – This one is a no-brainer. Coach K is in his 13th Final Four and already has 5 national titles to his name. He’s also the all-time Division I leader in wins by a head coach. His resume speaks for itself. Even if he doesn’t claim title No. 6 on Monday night, he’s still one of the best ever to coach college hoops.
- Jay Wright, Villanova – Wright, in my opinion, often gets overlooked when it comes to the greatest current coaches debate. In fact, even ahead of the Wildcats’ Elite Eight matchup with Houston, there was a lot of talk about Kelvin Sampson being the best coach in the game today. Yes, what Sampson has done at Houston is incredible, but let’s not forget that Wright has 2 national championship rings. He’s built Villanova into a powerhouse and that deserves nationwide respect.
- Bill Self, Kansas – To have Self at No. 3 on a list of 4 coaches just shows how deep this year’s Final Four really is. Really, the only knocks on Self are that he “only” has 1 national title and has made it to “only” 4 Final Fours. He’s had an incredible career in Lawrence, but winning a second title would be a huge boost for his legacy.
- Hubert Davis, North Carolina – Yes, Davis is last on this list, but that’s no disrespect to him. He’s in his first year and he’s led the Tar Heels to the Final Four. That’s a pretty solid track record so far! The knock on him will be “oh, he did this with Roy Williams’ players.” Well, after making it to the Final Four, he’ll be able to recruit some great players of his own to Chapel Hill. The future is bright for Davis.
Now, let’s make some predictions for the games in New Orleans.
5. Final Four predictions
Here’s how I see the action in New Orleans playing out this weekend and who I’m picking to win the NCAA Tournament title:
Final Four picks
- Duke over North Carolina
- Kansas over Villanova
Title game pick
- Duke over Kansas
The Duke-UNC semifinal is honestly the toughest game of the 3 for me to pick. When you have teams that are so familiar with one another and hate each other so much, you never know what’s going to happen. The Blue Devils won on UNC’s home court. The Tar Heels ruined Coach K’s final home game. Anything can happen in that matchup. But, with the poise Duke has shown against Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas in this tournament, I think the Blue Devils have what it takes to advance.
Normally, I’d take Villanova over Kansas, but that Justin Moore injury is just so brutal for Jay Wright’s squad. If it had happened earlier this year and the Wildcats had some time to learn how to play without Moore, I’d be more confident in their ability to take down Kansas. But, the Jayhawks are riding high after a masterful second half against Miami. Meanwhile, Villanova is without one of its leaders.
The title game between Duke and Kansas has the potential to be an all-time great matchup. Ochai Agbaji vs. Paolo Banchero. Mark Williams vs. David McCormack. Bill Self vs. Coach K. But, I think it comes down to a clutch shot at the end of the game. Jeremy Roach has consistently risen to the occasion in this tournament. He’ll go down in history after making 1 more clutch shot to win Duke another title.
Enjoy the Starting 5? Have a question? Want to yell at me about something? Follow me on Twitter @AdamSpencer4 or email me at ASpencer@SaturdayDownSouth.com.