Kansas takes on Villanova in a rematch of the 2016 Elite Eight, although only 5 players who played in that one will take part in this year’s matchup. Villanova brings the best offense in college basketball into this matchup, and they have improved all season defensively as well.
Villanova has the best offense in the country, and possibly the best offense in the KenPom era. They rarely turn it over (14th nationally) and rarely take bad shots (45th in number of 2-point jumpers).
The Wildcats take a ton of threes. A ton. In fact, 47.1 percent of their attempts come from beyond the arc, and the Wildcats shoot an impressive 40 percent from three. Although Villanova scores well at the rim (16th nationally), they don’t take a lot of shots there, ranking just 252nd in shots at the rim. It stands to reason then, that they are 281st in free throw rate, which is great news for a depth challenged KU team.
While Villanova is filled with great offensive players, their key is senior guard Jalen Brunson. Brunson is a front runner for National Player of the Year, and it’s not hard to see why. He shoots 60 percent on twos and 41 percent on threes with a 26 percent usage rate, oh, and he has a 27 percent assist rate with just a 12 percent turnover rate. Kansas won’t be stopping him, but can they slow him down?
Brunson’s worst game of the year was February 14 against Providence, in which he had 14 points on 11 shots and also had 7 turnovers in what was Villanova’s second loss in three games.
Providence did a pretty good job at forcing Brunson to take tough medium range shots, and while he definitely can make them, you’d rather have him take these types of shots than open threes:
Brunson is a fantastic post up player, averaging over 1 PPP per post up. He’s not very big, just 6-2, and not terribly explosive, but he gets so many one-on-one opportunities down low because he’s such a good passer out of the post that no one can help off. He also has a wide frame which he can use to back people down. Kansas will probably use multiple defenders on Brunson, but I think both Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick would be deterrents in the post considering Brunson would have a tough time scoring over each of them.
They’ll likely have to defend him 1 on 1 best as possible, because if you overhelp he can do this:
Like everyone else, though, it’s most important to keep Brunson from getting good looks at a three. He can hit them off the dribble:
However, you can’t overhelp to stop Brunson, as he’s a phenomenal passer:
Brunson isn’t an explosive athlete, but he’s incredibly crafty in the open floor and is able to create space with his frame as well as his smarts:
If having Brunson wasn’t enough, Villanova also has Mikal Bridges, who could be a lottery pick this summer. Bridges is shooting 43.6 percent from three on 227 attempts so far this season. However, he’s incredibly efficient on twos as well, and is very good at cutting to and finishing at the basket:
He’s also very good at scoring in the halfcourt at the rim, especially when he gets a mismatch:
And, like Brunson, he can post up, although he is more adept at getting to the basket off those post ups and less willing of a passer than Brunson is:
Probably the most interesting matchup, and one of the more consequential, will be that of Villanova big man Omari Spellman. At 6-8 and 255 lbs (although I think the middle digit is low by a couple), Spellman is nonetheless a perimeter threat, having taken almost as many threes as twos this season.
Spellman doesn’t have the quickest release, but given that most college teams don’t have the personnel to cover him, it doesn’t matter. He will often start in the post and float to the perimeter when his man has to rotate to protect the rim:
Needless to say, that puts a lot of pressure on KU’s perimeter players to stay in front of their man so there are no easy drive-and-kick corner threes available. If Kansas can turn Spellman into an inside the arc scorer as much as possible it will go a long way towards making him as ineffective as possible. Spellman shoots 58 percent at the rim, which is pretty low for a big guy, and 43 percent on mid range jumpers, which is a very good number for that type of shot, but obviously it is the type of shot Kansas wants to give up. Spellman is also a terrible passer with an assist rate under 5 percent, so running him off the 3-point line and forcing him to make decisions is a priority for the Kansas defense.
If all of that wasn’t enough, Villanova also has one of the nation’s best off-the-bench guys in Donte DiVencenzo, although he plays starter’s minutes so the 6th man designation is in name only. DiVencenzo is another great 3-point shooter, shooting 38.5 percent on 200 attempts this season.
Although DiVencenzo is a great shooter, he’s also athletic enough to beat his man off the dribble:
He’s also adept at scoring off the bounce and being able to shoot over his defender, even when he’s unable to get great separation:
The one piece of good news for the Jayhawks is Villanova ranks just inside the top 150 nationally in offensive rebounding, and ranked 8th in the Big East, so not only will it likely be a 1-and-done trip if they miss, but Kansas can really sell out to defend the first shot, knowing the Wildcats likely won’t get a second.
Villanova allowed .88 points per trip to Alabama in the 2nd round, 1.03 to West Virginia in the Sweet 16, and .89 to Texas Tech in the Elite 8, so their defense is definitely trending upwards. It should be said, however, that the Crimson Tide shot 50 percent on twos and the Red Raiders missed approximately 3,000 layups, so the pure PPP numbers may be flattering the Wildcats a bit.
Even so, Villanova has a top 15 defense via KenPom, and the best defense in the Big East. Most worrisome for Kansas, Villanova is pretty good at taking away the 3-point attempt, with opponents taking just 35.6 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc.
One way Kansas can get 3-point attempts is when Villanova helps in the post. I’m guessing they’ll be hesitant to help off Devonte Graham, Malik Newman, and Svi Mykhailiuk, but I also doubt they will want to give Udoka Azubuike free post-ups either. Fortunately for the Jayhawks, Udoka Azubuike is a willing passer, and an underrated one, so they could get a few inside out looks from three when Villanova overhelps:
Another thing that can open up some threes is Villanova can be beaten off the dribble, which will cause them to have to decide whether to give up a somewhat open attempt at the rim, or a three:
I think Devonte Graham will be able to drive it past Brunson semi-regularly, but I would also look to whichever wing Mikal Bridges doesn’t guard to have a nice game both driving and scoring, but also being able to drive and kick to the wings.
The Wildcats have also struggled a bit with pick-and-roll coverages at times, with Spellman not having the ability to get up and challenge the ball handler or the quickness to get back and challenge the roll man:
I also think that due to Spellman’s lack of lift, there are going to be some lob opportunities available for Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa off pick and roll sets.
Villanova also is an above average defensive rebounding team percentage wise, but a lot of that is likely due to not facing a lot of teams that pound the offensive glass: the Big East, as a whole, was the 25th ranked conference in offensive rebound rate this season.
Lastly, Villanova does not force a ton of turnovers. This doesn’t necessarily mean Kansas won’t turn it over (see: Duke), but the Jayhawks are likely going to have an easier time taking care of the ball against the Wildcats because they don’t have the length or athleticism of the Blue Devils.
So, Kansas is likely going to have to get lucky and hope Villanova doesn’t go insane from three, but the keys are going to be make them work for those attempts as much as possible and sell out to deny and force them inside. Other than that, I think Kansas is going to want to go inside to Udoka Azubuike a lot to draw fouls as well as get easy baskets as much as possible to put pressure on Villanova to match them possession for possession.