Final Four Preview: Blue bloods battle on the biggest stage


Athlon Sports

This year’s March Madness concludes with the Final Four face-offs on April 2.

Carter Sims, Managing Editor

From the moment college basketball tips off in November, every game is leading up to the sport’s penultimate weekend. The moment has an identity, a character in and of itself. After five months of hoops and a tournament of madness, the Final Four has arrived.
Upsets and Cinderella stories are the lifeblood of March Madness and make for compelling entertainment each year when the NCAA tournament rolls around. This year, however, the blue bloods of college basketball have prevailed, and the Final Four is shaping up to be an exclusive club for the best programs in the country.


The 2 seed Villanova Wildcats came out of the South Region, making their first Final Four appearance since 2018 when they won the national championship. Nova enters the Final Four having beaten Delaware, Ohio State, Michigan, and Houston
Villanova was crowned champion in the Big East tournament, and the current state of that conference can provide two schools of thought on the credibility of that title.
On one hand, the Big East had a varying level of teams with a high ceiling and an even lower floor.
On the other hand, however, the Big East still accomplished its goal since the creation of the conference: to provide entertaining basketball to the East, while keeping the local players in town.
This is exemplified by Villanova, as the Wildcats have been part of 18 games with a point margin of 10 or less, and are powered by fifth-year senior Collin Gillespie, a point guard out of Archbishop Wood Catholic High School, half an hour outside Villanova’s campus in Philadelphia.
Gillespie poses a threat from all aspects of the offense, as he has the ability to score inside and out thanks to his steady ball handling. Gillespie passes the eye test, and a glance at the statistics backs it up. The Big East player of the year has bounced back from last year’s MCL tear and is averaging 15.6 points and 3.3 assists per game, both team highs.
Gillespie leads the team in points, but senior Jermaine Samuels has proved vital to Nova’s tournament success. Samuels has posted double digits in points in every game of the tournament and leads the team in rebounds and blocks.
Samuels shows a determination to get to the rim and finds a variety of ways to do it. The 6’7 forward thrives when he can get downhill and put the defender on his hip, giving him angles to finish at the basket. Samuels has also shown quick cutting, tenacious offensive rebounding, and can make shots from the perimeter.
Jay Wright’s Villanova teams have maintained a reputation of top talent in recent years, with names like Josh Hart, Kyle Lowry, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Jalen Brunson, and Saddiq Bey all having carved out careers at the highest level. The current makeup of the Wildcats boasts that same elite pedigree, with veteran talent all over the floor.


Villanova will be met by the 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks from the Midwest Region, making their first appearance since 2018. Kansas won both the Big XII regular season and tournament championships and has beaten Texas Southern, Creighton, Providence, and Miami (FL) in the NCAA tournament.
One of the sport’s most historic college basketball programs, Kansas is a team built from success both recently and long ago.
Kansas can claim to be the home of basketball’s most important figures. The creator of the game, James Naismith, was the program’s first-ever coach. Some of the greatest players ever are Jayhawks, with names like Wilt Chamberlain and Paul Pierce calling Kansas their alma mater.
The team has hung banner upon banner, winning 63 conference regular-season titles and 16 conference tournament championships.
The school has even produced legendary players-turned-coaches like Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, and Phog Allen, launched the careers of John Calipari and Gregg Popovich after being assistants at the university, and has seen hall of fame coaches like Larry Brown and Roy Williams head KU.
One of the assistants turned hall-of-famers is Bill Self, the Jayhawks coach in his 19th year. Self has been at the helm for the program’s success in the 21st century, producing players like the Morris twins, Devonte’ Graham, Kelly Oubre, Andrew Wiggins, and Joel Embiid.
Self has coached the Hawks to 16 regular season and eight tournament conference titles, five Final Fours, and one national championship.
While the program’s history is illustrious, there are a few stains on the program’s recent reputation. The Jayhawks’ last trip to the semifinal was coincidentally also against Villanova, a sound 95-79 victory for the Wildcats in which KU was constantly playing catch up.
This season, Kansas couldn’t handle Dayton in the ESPN Invitational, was upset by Texas and Texas Tech, and was beaten by Kentucky in a game where UK controlled KU after 10 minutes. Kansas also lost to Baylor and was upset by TCU in a week in which all the top six ranked teams lost.
While there’s nothing to do about Dayton, Kentucky, Texas, or Baylor, Kansas did avenge their losses to TCU and Texas Tech, beating both teams by the time the NCAA tournament rolled around.
The core of this year’s edition of Kansas domination has been players like Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, Jalen Wilson, David McCormack, and Remy Martin, a 5th-year senior.
The guard had previously announced his intention to play pro after four years at Arizona State, but after not receiving an invite to the combine, Martin ultimately decided to transfer to Kansas.
Martin has scored 15 or more points in all but one of the Jayhawks’ NCAA tournament games and has been the catalyst for hot streaks during recent games for Kansas.
Serving as the leading scorer in the tournament for Kansas, Martin has caught fire at the right and has helped put Kansas in position to win, Martin’s goal in coming to KU.
Kansas, like their competition at this stage, is a program with the highest possible standards, and a unit of players with pure skill and experience in tournament play.


Long before the ball was tipped, Duke’s season was destined to be memorable. With head coach Mike Krzyzewski announcing this would be his final campaign, the farewell tour was set to be full of emotion and intrigue.
The season opened with a win against Kentucky, and three weeks later a victory against Gonzaga. Two wins against powerhouses looked great on the unbeaten Devil’s resume, and freshman Paolo Banchero was looking like a star early on. The forward had put up double digits in every game, and 20 pieces against the basketball juggernauts.
The first loss for Duke came in Columbus, a 66-71 loss to Ohio State, and a loss that looks worse given the Buckeyes’ late-season skid. The defeat became the first of a few, as Duke dropped games to Miami, Florida State, and Virginia once they entered conference play.
While Duke looked vulnerable, they still picked up key wins in the ACC. The Blue Devils took a decisive victory over Notre Dame, beat arch-nemesis North Carolina by 20 in their first meeting of the season, and avenged the Florida State and Virginia losses in the rematches.
Even though the ACC is a conference that breeds competition and Duke is a program that produces star players, no description of hype would be ample for the regular-season finale.
Coach K has coached names like Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, JJ Redick, Jay Williams, Zion Williamson, and Christian Laettner. His career with Duke and Team USA has been filled with trophies and championships, and his final regular-season game couldn’t have been set up any better.
On March 5th at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke faced UNC. The fiercest rivalry in college sport would be attended by legendary alumni in a historic venue in a game with the highest ticket price for a college basketball game ever.
Celebrities, basketball royalty, and 3.98 million television viewers watched as K’s final outing at Cameron was ruined by the Tar Heels. The pressure may have gotten to Duke, as the day ended in a 94-81 win for North Carolina. As tears streamed down the Cameron Crazies’ faces, and Krzyzewski apologized to the fans in attendance, the focus had to turn to the ACC tournament.
Duke beat Syracuse in the first round, got a payback win against Miami, but fell to Virginia Tech before they could reach the ACC final.
Even with AJ Griffin, Wendell Moore Jr, and Paolo Banchero posting double digits, Virginia Tech dominated the Devils on the boards, snatching 13 offensive rebounds. Duke also had a rough time from the perimeter, only shooting 20% from three-point range.
With no conference championship and no showing of complete dominance, Duke’s 2021-2022 campaign didn’t warrant a 1 seed. Coming in as the 2 seed from the West Region, Duke’s first opponent in the big dance was Cal State Fullerton, a game in which five Blue Devils recorded double digits in scoring and Banchero put in a double-double.
Next came the Michigan State Spartans, a familiar foe for Duke. Once again, balanced scoring helped Duke advance and pick up a win in the final installment of the Izzo-Krzyzewski series, which tallied 15 entries by its end..
After pulling out a close win against Texas Tech and winning their Elite Eight game against a very skilled Arkansas squad thanks to Moore and Banchero playing nearly the whole game, and AJ Griffin pouring in 18 points.
Wendell Moore, AJ Griffin, and Paolo Banchero are perfect examples of 21st century forwards: versatile attackers in the paint with three-point capabilities that make them difficult to guard.
With a handful of players capable of scoring in bunches and a legendary coach, the Blue Devils haven’t cracked under the pressure of sending off Coach K in confetti. Duke is back to playing freely, letting their world-class talent be the story and not the circumstance of Krzyzewski’s retirement.

North Carolina

While UNC’s rivals, the Duke Blue Devils, are usually regarded as the villains of college basketball, this year the Tar Heels have had to play spoiler in the biggest games.
The 8 seed from the East Region, the Tar Heels are in the first year of Huebert Davis at the helm after Roy Williams’ retirement last summer. While Davis is a former player and assistant at UNC, the transition hasn’t been completely smooth.
The Heels fell to strong opponents in the first half of the season, with losses to Purdue, Tennessee, and Kentucky in games that didn’t end with a close final score.
Once the ACC season rolled around, losses to Notre Dame, Miami, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech, capped off with a 20 point loss to next-door neighbors Duke looked ugly on the resume.
The program, of which the likes of Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Vince Carter, and Jerry Stackhouse, was struggling in the ACC and walked into Cameron as clear underdogs.
The beauty of rivalries, though, is how they can neutralize the powers colliding.
UNC took the win out of Duke’s hands with four Tar Heels putting up 20 points or more. Brady Manek, Armando Bacot, Rj Davis, and Armando Bacot’s 20 pieces ruined the ceremonies of the day,
The following week, Virginia Tech knocked North Carolina out of the ACC tournament, and the complete body of work earned the blue blood program a middle seed at 8 in their region.
The Tar Heels took a dominant victory over Marquette and faced defending champions, Baylor, in the second round. UNC prevailed in one of the gems of this year’s tournament, even with Brady Manek ejected in the second half due to throwing an elbow and warranting a Flagrant 2 foul.
Davis put up 30 points on the day, and the Tar Heels moved the ball around, recording double the assists of Baylor, both elements that helped UNC advance.
The Heels then beat UCLA, a Final Four team from last year, and faced Cinderella story, St. Peters, in the Elite Eight. St. Peters had already beaten Kentucky and Purdue, two teams North Carolina had lost to in the regular season.
UNC played spoiler again though, as Armando Bacot poured in 20 points and the Heels played a defense the Peacocks couldn’t quite crack, making St. Peters suffer through long scoring droughts.
UNC has spoiled “Coach K Day,” spoiled Baylor’s attempt at a repeat, and has spoiled the surprise run of this year’s tournament. Now, the Tar Heels are tasked with ending Coach K’s career on their first Final Four appearance since 2017.
While the program has not been at its best this season, Carolina’s identity is similar to its peers at this stage. These programs are the pillars of college basketball, the household names everybody and their grandmother knows.
Duke, UNC, Kansas, and even Villanova are powers of the game, similar to the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Cowboys, and New York Yankees in their respective leagues. Their success correlates with the success of the sport, and this clash of titans in the Final Four is a showing of college basketball’s finest.
Villanova and Kansas will tip-off at 6:09 ET, and Duke and UNC will start up at 8:49 ET, both games taking place from Caesar’s Superdome in New Orleans. The championship game will be Monday, with all games on TBS.