National Championship Game Prediction

Posted: 04/04/2016 by levcohen in NCAA

On the surface, Saturday night’s Final Four games were disappointing and boring. Villanova eviscerated Oklahoma by 44 points (no, I still can’t believe that happened), shutting down Buddy Hield and the rest of OU’s team and hitting 71% of their shots in a game that wasn’t even their most efficient offensively in the tournament on a per-possession basis (they scored 1.5 points per possession against Oklahoma, which is pretty good… but they scored 1.55 PPP against Miami in the Sweet 16). Meanwhile, North Carolina took care of business in the later game, beating Syracuse by 17 in a game that was never in doubt. Despite losing their long-range touch, the Tar Heels were tremendous offensively, hitting 54% of their shots, grabbing more than half of their own misses (16 offensive rebounds), and getting good play from everyone in their starting lineup. So yeah, both games were pretty boring. In fact, most of the games each of these teams has played in the tournament have lacked intrigue. North Carolina has won their five tournament games by 14-19 point margins, putting together game-ending streaks in which their offense absolutely can’t be stopped. Meanwhile, Villanova has played a close game against Kansas and… that’s about it. Even including the five point win over the #1 overall seed, the Wildcats have beaten their opponents by an average of 24.2 points per game, a number that, if it holds, would be the best ever in a tournament.

Of course, that number won’t hold, because ‘Nova isn’t going to win this one in a blowout. The real beauty of seeing all of the blowouts is the knowledge that we’re really going to see the two best teams in college basketball clash tonight. The Wildcats, disrespected from the get-go, have proven that by coasting through a slate of games that has been about as difficult as possible. The Tar Heels, on the other hand, have had an easy schedule, but is there any doubt that they are the best team on the right side of the bracket? Could Kentucky, Xavier, West Virginia, Virginia, or Michigan State have beaten them? I don’t think so. So what we’re left with is a clash of titans. Both of these teams have been ranked #1 overall at some point this season. UNC opened #1 and won both their regular season and conference tournaments, while Villanova won the Big East and leads the nation with 34 wins. These are also the two best teams in Kenpom, with Villanova ranking first and Carolina second. Are Pomeroy’s numbers correct? Should the Wildcats really be favored to win this game?

Las Vegas disagrees, as the Tar Heels are entering the game as two point favorites. From a Villanova standpoint, there are certainly a number of reasons to be worried. The Wildcats are great, but they don’t have a lot of big men. Daniel Ochefu is as reliable as it gets, but he’s been hobbled multiple times this tournament and has cracked 30 minutes just three times all season. Meanwhile, North Carolina is huge and they’re beasts on the offensive boards. Brice Johnson is the headliner, but Carolina has the depth to dominate even when Johnson is in foul trouble. Kennedy Meeks destroyed Syracuse, Isaiah Hicks is a future pro, and even Joel James provided key minutes against ‘Cuse. I expect Ochefu (and Darryl Reynolds when he’s out) to stay on whichever of Meeks/Hicks/James is on the court, leaving Kris Jenkins, brother of UNC guard Nate Britt, on the bigger Johnson. Now, most people aren’t giving Jenkins much of a chance to stop Johnson, but I’m more optimistic than most. Jenkins is a really tough player, and he’ll get plenty of help from guards who will be quick to double-team Johnson. Villanova’s going to encourage guys like Justin Jackson (28%), Britt (33%), and Theo Pinson (29%), to shoot semi-open threes while trying to limit Johnson’s touches inside and opportunities for both Paige and Joel Berry. There’s a reason that North Carolina has the best offense in the country according to Kenpom; they’re versatile, talented, deep, and scary. Villanova has to avoid foul trouble, and they can’t let Paige hit a bunch of open threes. They’ve been playing great defense all year, and I think their scrappiness will really help against a more talented team, but I don’t think they’ll have the success stopping UNC that they had against Kansas and Oklahoma… which means that the Wildcats’ offense, ranked #2 in the country by Kenpom, is going to have to stay hot.

Does Villanova need to shoot 70% from the field? Of course not. They’ve had a few amazing offensive showings this tournament, but I don’t expect that to happen again. But they can’t have prolonged droughts against the most dangerous offense in the country. North Carolina’s defense is beatable. Just as Jenkins is going to be the key defensively, he’s going to be the co-key (with Josh Hart) offensively. Look for the Wildcats to try to get Jenkins on Meeks/Hicks/James in isolation on the perimeter, allowing for easy trips to the basket and/or getting UNC’s bigs into foul trouble. The offense works best when easy inside baskets opens up the game for open threes. I don’t think Ochefu is going to have the easy post-up opportunities he had against the undersized Sooners, which means that Villanova is going to have to penetrate from the outside, collapsing the defense and opening the game up. Their best driver and finisher in traffic? You guessed it: Hart. The junior guard has tremendous body control and is able to finish in a number of jaw-dropping ways. He also shot 83.3% against Oklahoma after shooting just 35.3% against Kansas. Which Hart will we see tonight? Senior Ryan Arcidiacono is obviously vital to Villanova’s chances, but this might also be a game in which freshman Jalen Brunson, who has been quiet in the tournament (8.4 ppg), takes a step forward. The North Carolina players know that Arcidiacono is shooting 66% from the field in the tournament, but they don’t necessarily know that Brunson can also change the game if he can get out in transition or hit a few threes. Mikal Bridges, Villanova’s best athlete, will also obviously be important in a game against a far more athletic team. Bridges is a 6’7″ guard who can harass an opponent, as he did when he got five steals against Kansas in the Elite Eight. Another performance like that would be huge for the Wildcats. North Carolina must contest Villanova’s three point attempts, because the difference between wide-open shots and contested shots is huge when it comes to this team. And while they love crashing the offensive boards, they also have to be sure that they aren’t beaten back up the court after missed shots, because guys like Hart, Brunson, Bridges, and Arcidiacono can take advantage of an over-aggressive or snoozing defense.

There’s no question in my mind that Villanova’s the team that plays harder over the course of two halves of basketball. There’s also no question in my mind that North Carolina’s the team that is more talented, bigger, and more explosive. Which side wins out tonight? Honestly, I think it’s a coin flip. I just hope this is the type of game that we all remember. I’ll take Villanova 77-73.

  1. quadrangular says:

    You sure nailed it!

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