(1) North Carolina vs. (2) Villanova
Initial Thoughts: As Marv said to Harry in an abandoned apartment building in New York while in pursuit of 10-year old Kevin McCallister, “Harry I’ve reached the top!” Yes sir we’ve finally made it to the pinnacle of the college basketball season, the culmination of two teams’ dedication and hard work boiled down into 40 minutes. North Carolina comes by way of the East region, a bracket that the Tar Heels dominated, winning every game by double digits and an average of 16 points. Likewise, Villanova breezed through the South, knocking off the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in the process before absolutely desecrating the Oklahoma Sooners in what was the most lop-sided Final Four game in college basketball history.
As I watched in disbelief the one-sidedness of Saturday’s contests, cursing under my breath (and sometimes over my breath) at the sheer dominance of the two schools I had bet against and the bed-wetting being carried out by the two underdogs, two things donned on me, 1) I am an awful gambler, and 2) the Cats and the Heels are truly the nation’s best two teams (and in fact rank as such per KenPom.com). Both squads ooze talent from every position on the floor and both squads execute their respective game plans with deadly precision. It helps, of course, that the two schools are each led by well-respected and tenured coaches in Jay Wright and Roy Williams. For Wright, this championship appearance means redemption and the shattering of a reputation for Tournament futility. Until this season, after Nova’s 2009 Final Four appearance, Wright and the Cats never made it past the Second Round despite earning two 2-seeds and a 1-seed over the six-year stretch. For Williams, this Natty Title appearance marks his 5th of his coaching career – Roy failed to claim the top prize in 1991 and 2003 while at the helm of Kansas, but has won two ‘ships with the Heels in 2005 and 2009. Roy is the second winningest postseason coach in history behind Coach K – of course it does help he’s coached two of the five most storied basketball programs in the land.
This game promises to be a good one between two teams with clashing styles on offense. Let’s dive in.
North Carolina on Offense: The Tar Heels come into the championship game boasting the nation’s most efficient offense (per KenPom). While many of the more efficient offenses in the land rely on the three-ball, UNC gets majority of their buckets within the arc – particularly at the rim. The first half of the Syracuse game epitomizes UNC’s offensive footprint, as the Heels went 0/10 from deep but still found themselves up 11 at half thanks to a dominant offensive rebounding performance and shooting a scorching 17/25 (68%) clip from inside the arc. Brice Johnson sums it up best:
The Heels offense revolves around pounding the ball inside by way of the drive, post-up, or owning the O-glass. UNC is 3rd in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (OR%) this season and score 61.5% of their points off two-point attempts (4th nationally); their three-happy first half against Cuse was really more of a consequence of facing a 2-3 zone than it was UNC’s preferred scoring approach (the Heels are in the bottom 15 in the country in attempted three-pointers this season).
In addition, while the Heels play at an up-tempo pace, they are a very patient offense and move the ball well; 57.3% of their buckets come off assists (58th nationally). Here Marcus Paige dices up the suspect Cuse D with a deft touch pass off a Cuse corner trap:
Another area the Heels excel in is transition, in which Carolina spends 17.7% of its possessions per Synergy (99th nationally). UNC was able to turn Syracuse misses and turnovers into easy buckets on the other end by pushing the ball up the floor quickly with dual point guards Joel Berry and Paige.
Here’s Berry pushing off an Orange miss:
Not to be out done, here Paige leaks out after a Cuse turnover:
Even reserve guard Theo Pinson got into the transition mix, slicing his way to the bucket off another Orange turnover:
What I really like about the above clip is how all five Tar Heels run down the floor during the transition opportunity. A sign of a well-coached (and a championship) team is a team that finishes plays in transition and hustles, as a unit, every chance they get; oftentimes we see big men loafing in the backcourt assuming their guards will finish a transition bucket.
Carolina will get transition opportunities against Villanova, as the Cats’ D doesn’t necessarily limit opponent chances; however, Nova is very good at getting back and contesting/preventing teams from converting transition opportunities. Here Nova stifles an OU transition opportunity off an Isaiah Cousins push:
And here we see four Cats sprinting back to stop a potential OU advantage, turning the Sooner opportunity into a Villanova transition set-up on the other end:
Nova’s defensive prowess doesn’t stop at transition; the Cats are the 6th best defensive unit in the land primarily due to their penchant for playing high-pressure ball defense, which leads to turnovers and the taking of highly contested jumpers by opposing squads. Villanova turns other teams over at a 20.6% clip this season (40th nationally) and holds shooters to just 44.5% inside the arc. Josh Hart played incredible D against Oklahoma’s star Buddy Hield (possibly the best player in the country); he was in his jock the whole game:
The Cats are fine with teams taking (usually contested) threes over their defense’s outstretched hands, but they focus on taking away chances at the rim, something UNC’s offense relies on to score. This is where the great battle will take place, as the Heels will attempt to pound it inside as always with Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, while Nova’s Daniel Ochefu will look to assume his familiar stopper role. This season, Ochefu has allowed a ridiculous .444 points per possession (ppp) on post-ups (74th nationally) and as a team Villanova only allows .739ppp (59th nationally). UNC may be able to exploit the Cats on the boards, however, as Villanova, though stout defensively, isn’t a fantastic defensive rebounding team. Ochefu is excellent, as is Hart; but the Cats still allow teams to grab 29% of their misses, which ranks 134th in the country. Look for the Heels to crash the boards per usual as they try to do to Nova what they did to the Orange when they grabbed 51.6% of their misses on offense.
Villanova on Offense: Where UNC is all about the inside game, Villanova is all about the long ball (and chicks dig the long ball). The Cats have attempted the 29th highest rate of three-pointers in the country and convert at a 35.9% clip (above average). Nova has five guys who have shot over 120 threes this season, allowing them to stretch out defenses across almost every position at any time on the floor. The Cats went 11/18 from downtown against OU shattering the stigma of the Houston Dome affect on shooting, and overall Villanova shot a Final Four record 71.4%. Josh Hart sums up just how unconscious Nova was that game with this shot (after which I dropped my betting tickets like Saul from Ocean’s Eleven at the horse track):
While the offensive performance was historical and by all accounts outrageous, it is actually a believable feat given Nova’s performance over this season. The Cats boast the nation’s second best offense (second to UNC) primarily due to their off-the-chart shooting percentages. Nova shoots 57.3% from inside the arc (2nd nationally) and 78.2% from the free-throw line (also 2nd). The Cats’ success is a product of their superior offensive execution as it relates to moving the ball and taking smart, open shots. Watching Villanova play offense is like watching the inside gears of a wristwatch; the precision and machine-like quality of their attack is uncanny. Nova as a team owns the 29th best assist rate in the country, tallying assists on 43% of their buckets primarily thanks to guards Ryan Arcidiacano (Archie) and Jalen Brunson.
Here’s a nice Archie assist off an Ochefu ball screen:
The above ball screen action is one of Nova’s favorite ways to start their possessions. As the point guard (usually Archie or Brunson) brings the ball into the half court, two Nova big men (often Ochefu and Kris Jenkins) come up on either side of the key giving the guard an option as to which screen to use:
This action sets up a few options for the handling guard: he can either use the screen to get to the bucket, find the roll man diving to the rim (like the above clip), or kick out to open shooters when defenders help off.
UNC’s response to this ball screen action is going to be one of the major keys to the game, as the Heels’ bigs tend to sag off on pick and rolls, allowing the screening big man to flair out for an open look or allowing the ball-handling guard to gain a head of steam as he barrels towards the paint. As a squad, the Tar Heels allow 0.948ppp on spot-ups (an average rate) and are below average at stopping the P&R ball handler.
Look at how far Johnson sags off the pick against Syracuse:
And here, Isaiah Hicks sags so far off the screen that Michael Gbinije of Syracuse is able to get momentum going to the bucket, forcing Brice Johnson to stay home and help in the paint, allowing for an easy kick to sharp shooter Tyler Lydon in the corner:
Rest assured, Villanova will tear this defense apart if UNC decides to continue to sag on ball screens, particularly if the screener is Kris Jenkins, who should have a Tar Heel big man defending him. Jenkins plays a 4-man role for the Cats, but has attempted the most three-pointers this season on Nova’s team, connecting on 38.4% of them.
In addition to ball screens, Villanova should be able to exploit UNC from deep. The Heels have allowed teams to shoot 35.9% from outside the arc this season, and Syracuse’s 8/25 performance in the Final Four was not a result of good Heel D; the Orange missed a ton of wide-open looks. If the OU game is any indication, the Heels will not get away with allowing open looks to the Cat shooters.
Key Factors: One key factor to watch in this game is the tempo. UNC plays at the 64th fastest pace in the nation, while Villanova tends to play a lot slower (284th fastest). The Heels are looking to push off misses and turnovers any chance they get while the Cats are more focused on working the ball around in the half court. The team who best controls the pace will have a prime opportunity to take home the crown. Another factor to watch is the battle on the boards. If Ochefu can succeed at keeping the beast that is Brice Johnson off the glass (that is hold him to under 10 rebounds), the Cats will be in great shape. On the other end, UNC’s success will be decided on how well they can bother Wildcat shooters.
Final Predictions: This is going to be a great game. The matchups across all positions are so intriguing: Ochefu/Jenkins vs. Johnson/Meeks, Hart vs. Jackson, Berry/Paige vs. Arcidiacano/Brunson. Both teams are long and athletic and come in playing their best basketball of the season. I think ultimately this one comes down to shooting. Villanova has the better shot at converting from beyond the arc and they have the size to compete with Johnson down low. If UNC hits shots, they will win, but frankly I see them shooting similarly against Nova as they did against Cuse, converting on four three-pointers on 17 attempts. This one stays close (for the love of God please let this one stay close); Villanova covers and gives GQ Jay Wright and his pinstripes his first National Title.
Straight-up Pick: Villanova
ATS Pick: Villanova +2.5
Over/Under Pick: Over 149.5