A Look at Each Final Four Team’s Path to College Basketball’s Biggest Stage

Cam Cobey and Hunter Firment, Sports Editors

A Look at Each Final Four Team’s Path to College Basketball’s Biggest Stage

Duke (Record: 32-6, #2 Seed in the West Region): 

Coming into the tournament, there were several question marks about the Duke Blue Devils. They were coming off of a lackluster performance in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Tournament Championship game against Virginia Tech, in which they were dominated by a final score of 82-67. The team did not look like a squad poised for a deep March Madness run. Not to mention, the loss came shortly after Duke had a dud in their regular season finale against North Carolina, their arch rivals. In that game, the stage was set for the Blue Devils to have one final victory over their enemies in Cameron Indoor Stadium for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s (Coach K) last home game as coach of Duke. However, instead of the storybook ending to Coach K’s career in Durham that everyone had anticipated, the Blue Devils were upset and embarrassed on their home floor to the tune of a 13-point loss. 

However, now all of that seems to be behind this Duke team. They entered the NCAA Tournament with a chip on their shoulder and were ready to play from the jump. The Blue Devils made it to the Final Four by running through a very difficult West Region. And while they did not have to play the tournament’s number one overall seed in the Gonzaga Bulldogs, they did play several strong opponents. Their route to New Orleans included a blowout win against an overmatched Cal State Fullerton team in the round of 64; a gritty victory over a good Michigan State squad in the second round; a wild, back-and-forth Sweet 16 victory against an elite defensive team in Texas Tech; and finally, a wire-to-wire performance in the Elite 8 against an Arkansas unit that had just slayed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. 

Duke’s X-factor in the tournament has been sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach. Roach had an up-and-down regular season for Duke, in which he never really cemented his place as the primary point guard. However, when the lights shone the brightest and Coach K needed a floor general to lead the way, Roach was the man for the moment. The sophomore point guard from Leesburg, Virginia burst onto the March Madness scene with his dynamic, career-saving performance against Michigan State in which he had 15 points, including a dagger three-pointer to go up by four points with just over a minute left in the game. Roach’s hot hand remained scalding in the Sweet 16 against Texas Tech in San Francisco, where he dropped another massive 15 points, as well as dishing five assists and grabbing four rebounds. And while he came back down to earth a bit in Duke’s Elite 8 contest against Arkansas, he was a threat that the Razorbacks were forced to think about. Roach’s emergence gives Duke’s other stars, like future lottery pick and freshman forward Paolo Banchero, more room to operate. If the Blue Devils are going to make the magical, storybook NCAA Championship run that Coach K has no doubt been dreaming of, Jeremy Roach may be the reason why. 

The team that Duke will have to beat to get back to the National Championship Game: the North Carolina Tar Heels. You could not write a script better than this. Coach K and the Blue Devils will have to avenge their heartbreaking loss in the regular season finale in order to get back to college basketball’s mecca. Will they get their revenge and give Coach K a proper send-off? Or will they disappoint yet again against their North Carolina neighbors, and leave Duke fans with a bitter taste in their mouths for eternity? Only time will tell. 

Villanova (Record: 30-7, #2 Seed in the South Region): 

The Villanova University Wildcats entered the NCAA Tournament on a hot streak. They won their sixth Big East Tournament victory in school history, which includes an astounding five of the past seven tournaments. After Providence College beat them out for a regular season title, Villanova proved they were the top dog in the Big East, by narrowly escaping the tough competition, winning three games by a combined 10 points. They have now won nine games in a row as they head to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Jay Wright, one of the best coaches in college basketball, has led these Wildcats to a fourth Final Four in his tenure, and third in six years. 

Some could say that the Wildcats had beneficial matchups on their way to a Final Four, not having to face any of the top four seeds in the South region, including #1 Arizona, #3 Tennessee, and #4 Illinois. But, Villanova played some tough teams, in #15 Delaware, #7 Ohio State, #11 Michigan, and #5 Houston. However you put it, it’s difficult to win in March, and Villanova got it done.

In the first round, Villanova dominated University of Delaware, winning 80-60, behind a 21 point effort from Justin Moore, 15 from Jermaine Samuels and 14 from Collin Gillespie. They held the Blue Hens to their third lowest point total on the season. The Wildcats were simply the better team against Big Ten opponent Ohio State University, which they beat 71-61, behind Gillespie’s 20 points. The Michigan University Wolverines looked like a team of destiny in this NCAA Tournament, and it was an intimidating matchup for the Wildcats with big man Hunter Dickinson a dominant force in the paint. Dickinson had 15 points and 15 rebounds, but Villanova escaped with a low scoring 63-55 victory with 22 points from Samuels. In the Elite 8, Villanova faced a really talented and defensive minded University of Houston Cougars team, who looked hungry for a spot in the Final Four. It was another low-scoring, gritty matchup in which Villanova led throughout on their way to a 50-44 victory. Samuels had an impressive double double with 16 points and 10 boards. 

Villanova has relied upon its experience throughout this season. Samuels and Gillespie, who were seniors last season, decided to come back to campus as fifth years. Gillespie suffered a torn MCL to end his senior year in March of 2021, but he’s back and looking like the best point guard in the nation. Samuels is Villanova’s glue guy, averaging 11.1 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, he is all over the floor for the Wildcats, often making electrifying plays that aren’t on the stat sheet. He has also exploded in the tournament, where he has averaged 17.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in four games.

Villanova suffered a big blow in their Elite 8 matchup against Houston. Junior Justin Moore, who is Villanova’s second leading scorer, suffered a torn Achilles and will be out for the rest of the tournament. Moore is an integral part of the team’s success, and his absence will be felt in the Final Four, as someone outside of the rotation will have to step up for the Wildcats.

In the Final Four, Villanova will face off with the #1 seed University of Kansas Jayhawks in what will be a tough matchup. Villanova will have to play defense like they have all season to stop this Jayhawks squad. The Wildcats will continue to shoot free throws at an incredible clip – 83.04% – not only the best in the nation, but the highest free throw percentage of all time. They will also rely on their experience, as seniors Gillespie and Samuels have been here before – after all, they were a part of the 2018 National Championship squad. Who says they can’t do it again? 

Kansas (Record: 32-6, #1 Seed in the Midwest Region):

The Kansas Jayhawks are in the Final Four for the 16th time in program history and fourth time under head coach Bill Self. In a Final Four full of Blue Bloods, Kansas is the only one seed left. 

The Jayhawks come into the Final Four at 32-6, tied with the second most wins of any team in division one basketball this year. They are another team on a hot streak, having won 17 of their last 19 games, including a tie for the Big 12 regular season champions, and a Big 12 Tournament Championship. 

This team is good. They played in arguably the toughest division in college basketball this season, going 14-4 in conference play and 16-1 at home in Allen Fieldhouse. 

Kansas is another team that has had a relatively easy schedule in the NCAA Tournament thus far. They avoided #2 seeded Auburn University, #3 seeded University of Wisconsin, and even a surging #5 seeded University of Iowa squad, who all lost before the Round of 32. 

On their way to the Final Four, Kansas beat #16 seed Texas Southern handily 83-56, #9 seed Creighton University 79-72, #4 seed Providence College 66-61, and #10 seed University of Miami 76-50. None of these teams move the needle for me in terms of tough competition. Kansas controlled pretty much every game, except during parts of the Creighton game, in which the Blue Jays put together a valiant effort. It took a while for the Jayhawks to get going against the Miami Hurricanes, but once they did, they blew them out of the water and showed that they were simply the better team. 

Ochai Agbaji is that guy for the Jayhawks. The 6’ 5” Senior guard was a first team all American, Big 12 Player of the Year, and led the Big 12 in scoring with 19.3 points per game. He is also a finalist for the Naismith award, which goes to the NCAA’s top performer. Agbaji is nothing short of a stud.

Although Agbaji has been Kansas’ go to guy throughout the regular season, they have found a diamond in the rough during their Final Four run. That would be Remy Martin. He has led the Jayhawks scoring efforts in three of their four tournament games, and has averaged 16.8 points during those games, compared to his average regular season. Martin will be huge for Kansas against Villanova. 

Kansas is complemented by big men David McCormack and Jalen Wilson, who combine for 21.1 points per game and 14.2 rebounds per game. Junior Christian Braun has also been big for the Jayhawks, and he averages 14.3 points a game.

If Kansas is going to beat Villanova on Saturday and advance to the Final Four, it’s going to need to have a balanced scoring attack. McCormack will need to dominate the paint, and one of Agbaji or Martin will have to take over the game. If that’s the case, Rock Chalk to the NCAA Finals. 


North Carolina (Record: 28-9, #8 Seed in the East Region): 

Let me just be up front and honest here: Not many people expected the University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels to be cutting down the nets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania en route to their NCAA-record 21st Final Four appearance. But that is exactly what first-year head coach Hubert Davis and his team did this past weekend after they dismantled the tournament’s sweetheart in the Saint Peter’s University Peacocks. UNC thrashed Saint Peter’s by 20 points, and led from start to finish. It always seems like the “Cinderella” team in the big dance eventually runs into a juggernaut that blows them out, and UNC was that juggernaut this year. While fans at home were yearning for three-pointers from Saint Peter’s guard Doug Edert (as well as camera shots of his bushy mustache) and confident-bordering-cocky postgame comments from Saint Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway, UNC was there to play the villain. They had seen the film from the Peacocks historic run to the Elite 8, and the Tar Heels were ready for their defensive pressure and efficient offense. 

The Tar Heels played at their own pace and dominated on the inside, outrebounding the Peacocks (49 to 33), as well as scoring more points in the paint (34 to 26). UNC’s center Armando Bacot led the way for the Tar Heels with 20 points to go along with 22 rebounds. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Bacot is the first player since the great Hakeem Olajuwon at the University of Houston to have 20 points and 20 rebounds at this stage or later in the NCAA Tournament. He was dominant.

Before their drubbing of Saint Peter’s, UNC made headlines with some upset victories. They took down the number one seed in the East Region in the Baylor Bears, as well as the number four seeded UCLA Bruins. The Tar Heels appear to have a newfound confidence in the tournament and have carried it all the way to the Final Four. It is crazy to think that just a couple of months ago, this team was on bubble watch and had several 20-plus point losses on their resume. The tides have turned for the better in Chapel Hill, and another date with Duke is on the horizon. As Charles Barkley said at halftime of the UNC versus Saint Peter’s game, UNC’s win over Duke at the end of the regular season seems to have given the group a heavy dose of confidence that they have carried into the tournament. Another win over the Blue Devils may just give the Tar Heels the confidence to win the program’s seventh National Championship.

Duke and UNC may be the greatest rivalry in college basketball, with 34 Final Four appearances and 11 National Championships between the two programs. There has been blood spilled on the court, buzzer beaters and immense hatred between the two sides for decades. One thing this rivalry has never had: a Final Four matchup with a trip to the title game on the line. That will change when the ball is tipped on Saturday night and the two rivals add another chapter to their already illustrious history. Duke. Carolina. Goosebumps.

Hunter’s Picks: 

Duke over North Carolina, Kansas over Villanova. 

Cam’s Picks:

North Carolina over Duke, Kansas over Villanova.