This article is part of our March Madness series.
There are plenty of folks in Lawrence, Kansas — and even a pundit or two — who believe the cancellation of the 2020 men’s NCAA Tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic cost the Jayhawks a championship. Today, coach Bill Self still feels that the unit was “the best team in the country.”
Twenty-four months later, Self and more than half of his 2019-20 roster have the Jayhawks in the national semifinal with the opportunity to claim the program’s fourth national championship and the coach’s second. FiveThirtyEight’s model gives the Jayhawks a tournament-best 41 percent chance to win the 2022 title.
Expectation doesn’t ring as loudly as surprise — Kansas, the lone No. 1 seed left standing, had the second-best odds of any team to reach this point, according to the FiveThirtyEight pre-tournament model. So it is that the favorite to cut down the nets is the fourth-most-talked-about team entering the Final Four, or as ESPN’s Myron Medcalf succinctly put it, perhaps the least sexy storyline left. Kansas has been so dominant on the hardwood for so long that the Jayhawks became the winningest college basketball team of all time during the tournament, and it resulted in little more than a Twitter bio edit (and not even Kansas’s!).
This blue-blooded Final Four features one team riding a late-season resurgence, one on the most successful continuous tournament run of the past five years and one celebrating the swan song of its legendary head coach. Kansas, meanwhile, is perhaps a boring kind of good; it has arrived in New Orleans after mostly flattening opponents for five months.
Kansas hasn’t fallen out of the top 10 in the AP Top 25 Poll all season and has only lost consecutive games once. It earned a sweep of the regular season and conference tournament titles for the ninth time under Self, and it features a potential National Player of the Year in Ochai Agbaji and one of the nation’s best Sixth Man in Remy Martin.
That dominance has extended into March as the Jayhawks have won two tournament games by 25-plus points, more than the rest of the national semifinal field combined. Most recently, it bashed the Miami Hurricanes by 26 points behind a 47-15 second half that Self described as “about as well as we can play.”
But despite the steady success, this isn’t Self’s best squad. This is neither the best offense nor the best defense that he has overseen in Lawrence.1
Kansas neither ranks in the top 25 in effective field-goal percentage nor opponent effective field-goal percentage, a feat it accomplished in both metrics in the same season five times each over the past decade. As appraised by Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, which uses point differential and strength of schedule to compare a team to the Division I average in a given season, this is only the fourth-best Kansas team since 2015-16.
But in a postseason largely decided by matchups and guard play, the Jayhawks favor well in the Big Easy. Kansas, which features the nation’s seventh-best offense, has the best remaining defense in the field, according to KenPom. Self’s offense was sharpened by matching up against the toughest slate of defenses in the country this season. Duke, North Carolina and Villanova haven’t played cupcakes, but they haven’t lined up against walls that Kansas has.2
In the semifinals, Kansas will square off against its inverse in Villanova in a rematch of a 2018 game that sent the Wildcats to the national final. Kansas opts to ratchet up the pace, playing at the 61st-fastest adjusted tempo in the country. Villanova is more comfortable in the half court, where it plays at the 345th-fastest adjusted tempo, bleeding the clock until it finds an open look. The Jayhawks attack the offensive glass, as evidenced by the 6-foot Martin grabbing at least six rebounds in each of the past three games, and rank in the 95th percentile in points in the paint per game and the 86th percentile in shooting efficiency in the area, according to CBB Analytics.
Villanova will also hunt offensive rebounds, but coach Jay Wright operates a motion offense that puts opposing bigs in a continuous loop of disarray along the perimeter. As a result, the Wildcats are in the 10th percentile in paint scoring. With Agbaji’s ability to score from practically anywhere on the court, an interior post presence and considerable length along the perimeter, the Jayhawks present difficult inside-outside matchups for most teams. And without injured Villanova starter Justin Moore in the game, the FiveThirtyEight model gives the Jayhawks a 69 percent probability to advance.
As Kansas looks for its first national title since 2008, it brings both pedigree and consistency to the Final Four. The most complete remaining team in the field might not be Self’s best, nor may it draw the most acclaim, but its balance and refinement have left it a cut above the rest where — and when — it matters most.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.