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Late Injuries Usually Doom Final Four Teams. Can Villanova Be The Exception?

Just before Villanova sealed its third trip to the men’s Final Four in the last six NCAA Tournaments, an injury threw a wrench into its season. As the Wildcats worked to run out the clock on their Elite Eight win against Houston, they put the ball in the hands of their sophomore guard, Justin Moore, who had already played 37 minutes in the game. With less than a minute left and a 4-point lead, Moore cut toward the basket. His leg buckled under him and he fell to the floor. Villanova finished off the win, holding Houston scoreless the rest of the way. But Moore’s tournament is over — he has torn his Achilles tendon, the school announced Sunday.

With a healthy Moore, Villanova would have had a 42 percent chance of beating Kansas in the national semifinals on Saturday and a 22 percent chance of winning the national championship, according to FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness model. But with Moore out, those chances fell to 31 percent and 13 percent, respectively. The difference isn’t surprising: With 14.8 points and 4.8 rebounds in 34.6 minutes per game, Moore ranks second on the team in win shares with 4.9, according to Sports-Reference.com.

There’s very little historical precedent for a team losing that kind of production at this stage in the NCAA Tournament — Moore’s case is, statistically, one of the most significant injuries in recent tournament history. We can measure these swings by tracking players whose team made at least the Final Four, who played more than 20 minutes in at least one tournament game but who also did not play in at least one tournament game. This list reveals five injuries similar to Moore’s since 2010, all of which differ in important ways.

How have teams with key injuries done?

Players for a Final Four team who were injured in the first four rounds of the men’s NCAA Tournament after playing 20 minutes in at least one game during that tourney, since 2010

Player Year School Min/g Pts/g Win Shares Round Injured Team Finish
Kalin Lucas 2010 Michigan St. 31.1 14.8 4.3 2nd Final 4
Darryl Bryant 2010 W. Virginia 24.3 9.3 2.7 2nd Final 4
Kevin Ware 2013 Louisville 16.6 4.5 1.9 Elite 8 Won title
Willie Cauley-Stein 2014 Kentucky 23.8 6.8 4.1 1st Runner-up
Chuma Okeke 2019 Auburn 29.1 12.0 5.5 Sweet 16 Final 4
Justin Moore 2022 Villanova 34.6 14.8 4.9 Elite 8 ??

Source: Sports-Reference.com

The only other injury that came this late in the tournament was the gruesome leg injury suffered by Louisville guard Kevin Ware in the 2013 Elite Eight. Ware averaged 16.6 minutes per game for the season and 20 minutes over the first three tournament games. His team went on to win the national championship without him. But while Ware did score 11 points in 25 minutes in the Sweet 16, he also accounted for only 1.9 win shares over Louisville’s 35-win season.1

In the rest of the cases, teams lost key players in the Sweet 16 or earlier, with just a bit more time to adjust before they played in the sport’s final weekend.

Most recently, Auburn’s Chuma Okeke tore his ACL late in a Sweet 16 win against North Carolina in 2019. Okeke was similar in value to Moore, with 5.5 win shares (second on the team). Still, the Tigers played well without him. While they did have an Elite Eight game between Okeke’s injury and the Final Four, it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk they could use to refine their lineup — they won an overtime thriller against No. 2 seed Kentucky. In the national semifinals, Auburn led by 2 with 2 seconds left against the Virginia team that would win the title; the Cavaliers made three free throws with 0.6 seconds remaining to win the game.

In 2010, two Final Four teams lost key players in the second round. Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas tore his Achilles in the first half against Maryland; the fifth-seeded Spartans won that game on a buzzer-beater and then advanced past Northern Iowa and Tennessee before ending their run against fellow No. 5 seed (and national runner-up) Butler. Meanwhile, West Virginia point guard Darryl Bryant broke his foot the same day against Missouri, but the second-seeded Mountaineers recovered to knock out Washington and No. 1 seed Kentucky before losing to the eventual champ, Duke, in the Final Four.

Villanova’s best-case scenario may parallel that of Kentucky in 2014, after Willie Cauley-Stein’s ankle injury. Cauley-Stein suffered the injury in the first round and played 23 minutes in the second round, but he lasted only four minutes in the Sweet 16 and missed the rest of the tournament. Without Cauley-Stein in the Elite Eight, the No. 8 seed Kentucky received an all-time outlier performance: Freshman Marcus Lee, who had averaged 5.7 minutes and 2.0 points per game entering that matchup, delivered 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 15 minutes of a 75-72 win against Michigan. The Wildcats upset No. 2 seed Wisconsin to reach the national championship, where they lost to Connecticut.

In one way, Villanova is inherently unprepared for an injury of this magnitude at this juncture of the tournament. The Wildcats have played their bench for only 22.7 percent of available minutes this season, which ranks 323rd of 358 Division I men’s teams in the country.2 And the majority of those bench minutes come from one player, Caleb Daniels, who figures to slot into Moore’s spot in the starting lineup.

Beyond Daniels, Villanova’s bench has been almost nonexistent during competitive NCAA Tournament games: In the past three rounds, the Wildcats have played only two other players — guards Chris Arcidiacono and Bryan Antoine. They have combined for 14 minutes and haven’t attempted a field goal. Villanova lacks what the 2014 Kentucky team had: a reserve of former five-star recruits, like Lee, waiting to come off the bench at any moment.

We don’t know how Villanova will respond without Moore on Saturday night, and we can’t know how the Wildcats would have fared with him. On one hand, they’re in late-season form, having won nine straight games, and they don’t have to build a team without Moore for a season — only for 80 minutes. On the other hand, they were already going to be underdogs against Kansas, and now their margin for error is slim to none. Either way, it should make for a fascinating case study in how replaceable players are at this point in the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova had to solve a similar problem last year, when Collin Gillespie — the Big East’s Player of the Year in each of the past two seasons — tore his MCL in the second-to-last game of the regular season. The Wildcats ended up beating Winthrop and North Texas in the tournament to reach the Sweet 16. But before that, the early returns were ugly: They lost to Providence in the regular-season finale and Georgetown in the Big East quarterfinals in their first two games without Gillespie. By the time they took the court for the NCAA Tournament, they had played without Gillespie for 16 days. This year, they don’t have that kind of time.

As Saturday approaches, the Wildcats are saying all the right things. “Other guys can step up, and we can be a good team without him,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told reporters this week, just as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in 2010, “It’s part of athletics and we’re just going to have to move on,” and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said, that same week, “Everyone is good. They’re sad for [Bryant], obviously, but they’re fine.” Villanova is good enough to be in the Final Four. But without Moore, winning there may be too difficult.

Check out our latest March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The NCAA later vacated Louisville’s 2013 national championship along with the team’s 35 wins from that season.

  2. The other three Final Four teams also happen to have short benches: Kansas is 296th in bench minutes (25.2 percent), Duke 314th (23.4 percent) and North Carolina 344th (20.4 percent).

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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