Two Elite Eight games down, two to go. And at least one of Sunday’s 2022 NCAA tournament meetings is what March Madness is about for a great many viewers.
The Saint Peter’s Peacocks have been the story of the tourney to date, becoming the first No. 15 team in NCAA tournament history to reach the Elite Eight. Their quest to keep dancing to New Orleans for the 2022 Final Four will depend on the ability of Shaheen Holloway’s team to get past one of the blue bloods of the sport, the No. 8 seed North Carolina Tar Heels — who have themselves made a surprising run to the doorstep of the national semifinals under first-year head coach Hubert Davis.
Speaking of blue bloods, the lone remaining No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks will begin Sunday’s action by vying for their 16th all-time Final Four trip against a Miami Hurricanes squad in the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.
Saturday’s Elite Eight action got the weekend off to a thrilling start with the Villanova Wildcats scoring a 50-44 win over Houston and the Duke Blue Devils punching Coach K’s ticket to his last Final Four with a 78-69 win over Arkansas.
ESPN’s team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on everything they saw Saturday, and what they’re looking for in the final two Elite Eight games on Sunday.
Sunday’s March Madness schedule:
No. 10 Miami vs. No. 1 Kansas, 2:20 p.m. ET (CBS)
No. 15 Saint Peter’s vs. No. 8 North Carolina, 5:05 p.m. ET (CBS)
Will North Carolina be the team that ends Saint Peter’s Cinderella run on Sunday? What’s different about this matchup for the Peacocks?
Borzello: On paper, it would appear that North Carolina is well-equipped to end Saint Peter’s run one step short of the Final Four. But the Peacocks were out-gunned on paper against Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue, too — so I think most of that can be thrown out the window. The one big difference between the Tar Heels and the three previous Saint Peter’s opponents is pace.
Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue all rank in the bottom-third nationally in tempo, which often evens the playing field for a lower seed. That’s not why the Peacocks have won, but it’s part of the reason they’ve been in three close games. Carolina will try to push the tempo and get points when Saint Peter’s isn’t set defensively; given the Peacocks’ elite half-court defense, that’s probably a good idea. But there’s just something about this Saint Peter’s team. They’ve dealt with the nation’s best big men in Oscar Tshiebwe, Trevion Williams, Zach Edey and KJ Williams, so the task of slowing down Armando Bacot won’t be a shock. I also don’t see Caleb Love going for 30 again (although R.J. Davis certainly can!). I’ve got the Peacocks Peacocking one more time.
Medcalf: I think the Peacocks’ run will end on Sunday, although nothing would surprise me with Shaheen Holloway’s team. Saint Peter’s could play the Brooklyn Nets and it would feel like they had a chance right now. I think Saint Peter’s will make sure this is another tight game, and if the Peacocks are in a tight game, they’ll know how to excel. I also believe, however, styles impact games. And this North Carolina squad is a different challenge.
Through three games, Saint Peter’s opponents in the NCAA tournament have combined to shoot 60 3-pointers. None of those teams made more than 33 percent of those attempts in a single game. North Carolina has 91 3-point attempts through the Sweet 16, and the Tar Heels have made 37 percent of their attempts. North Carolina is going to spread the floor in ways that Saint Peter’s previous opponents did not. And I think that dynamic will be the difference in this game. North Carolina wins. But I can’t wait to see Saint Peter’s take its shot.
North Carolina has a pair of back-to-back 3s from Caleb Love and a clutch tip from Armando Bacot down the stretch to advance to the Elite Eight.
Gasaway: If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Peacocks, it’s that this will be a close game. Shaheen Holloway’s group has come out on the good side of contests decided by six, 10 and three points, with the first of those going to overtime. Yes, Love and Bacot should both be significant problems for this defense, but we’re talking about a Saint Peter’s team that has already prevailed against Oscar Tshiebwe, TyTy Washington Jr., KJ Williams, Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey and Trevion Williams. This isn’t a case where an underdog is hitting 3s in a bracket transformed by upsets. (Saint Peter’s did hit its 3s against UK, but has shot just 26% from beyond the arc in two subsequent wins.) The Peacocks have taken the best the East Region has thrown at them and prevailed. With the Tar Heels being the lowest seed SPU has seen yet, I’ll ride with destiny for one more stop and take Holloway’s team in a close one.
Lunardi: Every time I’m asked about Saint Peter’s, my answer has been the same. “Kentucky isn’t favored by enough, Purdue isn’t favored by enough,” etc. Yet here we are. The Peacocks are still strutting, and nothing seems impossible. What concerns me, as always, is “Can Saint Peter’s score enough?” The Peacocks averaged just over one point per possession (1.009) for the season, 216th nationally according to KenPom. They are averaging 1.088 points per possession in the NCAA tournament, which would have ranked in the top 70 nationally. So do you trust the three-game sample or the three-month trend? Call me the boring numbers guy who says the run ends here.
Duke played arguably its most complete game in a 78-69 win over Arkansas in the Elite Eight. From what you’ve witnessed, can this team be consistent enough to win two more tough games in New Orleans?
Medcalf: When I talked to Wendell Moore Jr. earlier this week, I asked him how that North Carolina loss in Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game had affected the Blue Devils. He said that week was filled with celebrations and admitted that he thought the team was a bit distracted. But it also turned Duke into a disappointment in the eyes of some before the NCAA tournament had even started. In a way, the backlash after that loss was about as bad as it could get, the team believed.
Now, you can see this team’s carefree vibe and confidence. They’re like, “What else can anyone say about us?” They asked Krzyzewski to switch back to man defense late in the game against Texas Tech, and it worked. They slapped the floor together in that matchup. In the first half against Arkansas on Saturday, they took turns attacking Arkansas before ending the half on a Trevor Keels 3-pointer that extended the lead at halftime to 12 points. I think the Blue Devils can put together two more big games and win Krzyzewski’s sixth national title in his final season. No program in the field is more talented. And no team in the field has a higher ceiling. It seems as if these young Duke players have realized as much this week.
Borzello: Talent has never been the question for Duke — the Blue Devils have had one of the most talented rosters in America since the start of the season. But what’s impressed me about them in the NCAA tournament is their toughness and adaptability. They had issues in close games during the regular season, leading in the final 65 seconds in each of their first four losses. Against both Michigan State and Texas Tech, they had to close strong. The Red Raiders, in particular, had the defense and physicality to really knock Duke off it’s game. But the Blue Devils battled and pulled out a win. And then defensively, where Duke has had problems at times this season, Coach K has utilized a zone defense in each of the last two games to stifle Tech and the Razorbacks. These are all things we didn’t see consistently from Duke during the regular season. But the Blue Devils have turned a page in the postseason and have shown the sense of urgency needed to win a national championship.
Gasaway: Duke is 80 minutes away from a national title, so there’s not much runway left for this or that alleged fatal flaw to trip them up. As we’ve discussed here before, Jeremy Roach looks much more aggressive and effective driving the ball to the rim. Mark Williams is following up on the potential he showed with his outstanding game against Gonzaga back in November. AJ Griffin is hitting corner 3s. Coach K is giving opponents pause by throwing in the occasional zone. We knew all along that Duke had the talent, the only question was whether this group of future pros was too inexperienced. The Blue Devils might not win it all, but one thing this team is not showing at the moment is an inexperienced look. Coach K’s group looks confident and dangerous.
Lunardi: We sometimes forget just how long the season is and, by extension, how many versions of the same team we can see. It turns out all those who insisted Duke had the highest ceiling in the country were right. It just took longer to manifest, with several unexpected bumps along the way. The Blue Devils will be a favorite over either North Carolina or Saint Peter’s in the national semifinals — the former because of revenge and the latter due to an overwhelming talent advantage — and who among us would doubt Coach K if his career happens to end next Monday night?
Villanova escapes with a 50-44 win after a gritty affair against Houston to advance to the Final Four.
Villanova finished off a workmanlike run to the Final Four by winning a rock fight with Houston on Saturday. What has impressed you most about the Wildcats during this run?
Lunardi: All year long I’ve characterized Villanova as “regular good,” meaning it was a far cry from the 2016 and especially 2018 national champions in terms of overall talent. We saw Saturday night that the system still works when executed to perfection. Houston did what it does defensively, limiting the Wildcats to 29% shooting, yet the Cougars never led, rarely threatened and were chasing the game throughout. Even when Houston got within a bucket at 42-40, my first thought was “Villanova won’t panic.” Jay Wright called time, Collin Gillespie came off a simple screen, game over. The Wildcats are so efficient that even John McKay would appreciate their execution. Fingers crossed they have a healthy Justin Moore in New Orleans.
Gasaway: This group is a long, long way from the record-setting shooters of the 2016-18 era, yet here is Villanova once again. That is what impresses me. The Wildcats find a way to win. Yes, they’ve received the good stroke of an opponent (Houston) shooting 1-of-20 on 3s, and indeed four tournament opponents combining to convert just 21% of their tries from beyond the arc. Just the same, Villanova has held its last four opponents to 46% shooting on 2s, and Jay Wright’s team has even started to flash a little Houston-style offensive rebounding. The shot volume recorded by the Wildcats on the road to the Final Four has been excellent. Jermaine Samuels has been outstanding, and scoring 16 points against the Cougars should get you a medal. These guys are basketball players who do whatever’s necessary. Here’s hoping Moore is fit to play.
Medcalf: It’s the consistency for me. I think the similarity between this group and the 2016 and 2018 national championship team is the way they finished the season. Those two teams had fewer grind-it-out games such as the one we all witnessed on Saturday, but these Wildcats were equally successful at toppling any team in front of them in the final chapter of the season. Villanova is 14-1 in its last 15 games. In the one game it lost during that stretch — 71-69 at UConn — the Huskies scored five points in the last 21 seconds of the game to win. It has not always been pretty. This team does not have a Jalen Brunson or a Mikal Bridges. But they’ve been solid for nearly two months.
It was difficult to watch Moore sob on the sideline with his teammates after the game, though. That’s not a good sign. And if he’s unavailable in New Orleans, it will change a Villanova’s ceiling and impact the team’s depth.
Borzello: They’re unflappable. They don’t stray from the staples that Jay Wright has used to win two national championships and now reach three Final Fours in the last six NCAA tournaments. Houston is supposed to be the team that takes opponents out of their comfort zones and makes them uncomfortable. On Saturday, that was Villanova. The Wildcats forced Houston to adjust its offense and guard for 30 seconds at the other end. They limited the Cougars on the offensive glass and didn’t commit live-ball turnovers. Discipline, ball movement, playing off two feet, switching everything defensively — Villanova sticks to those principles and wins games.
Given that Moore didn’t get off the bench after the buzzer sounded and went to the locker room on crutches before returning during the trophy ceremony, it might be a stretch for him to play next week — and we’ll hope it’s not too serious. If Moore is out, that puts a lot of pressure on Caleb Daniels, who has been the sixth man in Villanova’s six-man rotation. Daniels has made several key shots in the last two games off the bench, and he will likely take Moore’s spot in the lineup. Where it hurts the Wildcats will be their depth — Chris Arcidiacono and Bryan Antoine will have to step up in New Orleans.
Kansas’ Christian Braun lobs it up to Ochai Agbaji, who finishes with a thunderous two-handed jam.
Kansas has outlasted rather than overpowered Creighton and Providence in its last two games. How worried are you for the Jayhawks in a matchup with a peaking Miami group?
Gasaway: At a minimum, Bill Self is worried. What Jim Larranaga calls his “scramble” defense gave both Auburn and Iowa State fits, to the point where Miami is actually the best remaining team in the field on that side of the ball in tournament play. It’s been quite a turnaround for a Hurricanes defense that in ACC play was just average. Even so, I’ll take Kansas here. Miami’s numbers perhaps speak not only to sound defensive principles but also to ghastly shooting from beyond the arc (19%) by the Tigers and Cyclones. Conversely, USC made nine 3s and played the Hurricanes into the 40th minute. Of course, KU’s perimeter shooting against Providence was ghastly in its own right, but I still like the Jayhawks’ chances with Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun and Remy Martin.
Borzello: If this was a month ago, before Remy Martin started looking like the Arizona State version of Remy Martin, I might have been a lot more concerned for Kansas. But I think Martin’s return to form over the last couple weeks has solved the Jayhawks’ playmaking and point guard issues. He’s averaging 16.0 points, 3.6 assists and less than a turnover per game over the last five games. I’ve loved the way Miami is playing lately; the Hurricanes’ three-guard lineup of Charlie Moore, Kameron McGusty and Isaiah Wong has been fantastic at both ends of the floor, forcing turnovers defensively and making big shots offensively. They’re going to test Kansas, but the Jayhawks just have more up front. Now, I don’t think Kansas can survive another game where Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun bring nothing to the table — but I think the Jayhawks have enough to beat the Hurricanes if the two veteran wings can make shots.
Medcalf: I think any coach watching what Saint Peter’s has achieved is concerned about Miami’s potential to send his squad home. This is a wild tournament. But this Martin development is like an NBA team making a key trade just before the deadline. We’d wondered how Kansas would look if Martin got healthy and comfortable, and here we are. He has changed this team and taken the pressure off Agbaji to carry the squad every night. That balance is a great development for Self’s squad. Martin has made 40% of his 3-point attempts and 64% of his shots inside the arc in the NCAA tournament. You combine that with a Kansas team that’s playing stubborn defense around the rim, and it’s not difficult to envision the Jayhawks winning by double digits.
Lunardi: Kansas is the best team left in the tournament by seed and on the court, where it counts most. If the current version of Martin had been available all season, the Jayhawks would be in the top left corner of the bracket as the No. 1 overall seed. And if you had asked Self in October if he’d take an Elite Eight matchup against a 10-seed, we all know the answer. Kansas boosters may be appropriately worried, but the sleepless night belongs to Miami.