By John Fanta
NEW YORK – It’s a showdown fit for the Final Four at the Alamodome. Villanova and Kansas. The beast of the BIG EAST against the longtime king of the Big 12.
When Jay Wright and Bill Self square off in San Antonio on Saturday, it won’t disappoint. Here are four keys to the Final Four showdown:
- Battle of the BIG’s: The frontcourt presence that Udoka Azubuike and Omari Spellman have had for Kansas and Villanova respectively is invaluable. The status of the Jayhawks’ 7-footer was in a bit of limbo heading into the NCAA Tournament due to a knee injury, but his health has been so crucial for KU’s first trip to the Final Four since 2012. Combining for 33 points and 26 rebounds in three Big Dance games, the center out of Nigeria gives Kansas the frontcourt element on a perimeter-powered squad. The big question in this match-up: Can Azubuike handle Spellman defensively? The 6-foot-10 Villanova freshman is lethal from the perimeter. His ability to pull Azubuike out on him beyond the arc can open up driving lanes for the Wildcats, at the very least. The BIG EAST Freshman of the Year is a handful of a mismatch. Will Self go small? While that could work on defense, Azubuike’s presence is needed for the Jayhawks to win.
- Perimeter Defense: Both in the top 20 in three-pointers per game, this could very well be a shootout. But the similarities go beyond Villanova and Kansas being two of the best perimeter teams in college basketball. They both only allow opponents to shoot just over 32 percent from beyond the arc. Which defense will step up more? The scary part about Villanova is the Cats shot just 4-of-24 on Sunday from three, yet won by double-digits. So, it is one of the top keys, but it may not tell the whole story.
- Malik Newman vs. Phil Booth: There may not be a hotter player in the tournament than Malik Newman. The Kansas sophomore guard is coming off a career-best 32-point breakout in Sunday’s overtime win over Duke. Who will Villanova look to slow him down? Phil Booth. The junior’s defense is integral for Nova’s success. In the seven games that Booth missed with a broken hand, Villanova allowed 78 points per game. When he’s played, the Wildcats have allowed just over 69 points per contest. Booth’s experience value is off the charts, having been on the 2016 national championship squad, while being named to the All-Final Four Team after he rose to the occasion in the title game win over North Carolina.
- Does Someone Have an Answer for Jalen Brunson Post-Ups? The Villanova star has shredded up Alabama’s Collin Sexton, West Virginia’s Jevon Carter, and Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans. He’ll face his biggest test yet in fellow Naismith finalist Devonte’ Graham. The debate will get settled on who’s the better player Saturday. Get ready for perhaps the best star battle we will have seen all season.
John Fanta is off to San Antonio this week for his show, BIG EAST Shootaround. Tune in Saturday at 11 AM ET for a special edition of Shootaround previewing Villanova and Kansas. On top of his coverage for BIG EAST Digital Network, Fanta will file reports for BIGEAST.com and ncaahoopsdigest.com. Stay tuned to @John_Fanta and @NCAAHoopsDigest on Twitter for complete coverage from college basketball’s grandest stage.