The NCAA tournament will provide a pair of Final Four trips in a Saturday twinbill that could double as a Final Four.
Right down to the traditional Final Four tip times – 6:09 p.m. for Oklahoma-Oregon, 8:49 p.m. for Villanova-Kansas – the first pair of regional finals this year seems more like a feast on its own rather than an appetizer for next weekend’s semifinal showcase.
Where to begin?
All four teams are ranked in the top eight of the KenPom.com efficiency rankings. Three enter the Elite Eight with at least 31 victories. Two won both their regular season and conference tournament titles. And one is the top overall seed in the field.
Never miss a local story.
So, yeah, it’s a high-level pair of games.
This is, of course, the exact opposite of what many believed this tournament would be after a regular season that (depending on your viewpoint) suggested either an exceptional level of parity or a surprise lurking around every corner.
In this half of the draw, though, it just hasn’t worked out that way. And the way Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon and Villanova dissected their capable regional semifinal opponents Thursday – by an average of 16.75 points – further illustrates these are among the best teams in the nation.
Then again, it shouldn’t have taken much to realize that, even without the benefit of seedings or national rankings.
Kansas (33-4) has a potential All-America pick in Perry Ellis and has won 17 in a row since dropping three out of five in the middle of January.
Villanova (32-5) has won 15 of its last 17 with the two losses coming by seven points at Xavier (a No. 2 seed) and by two points on a neutral floor against eventual Big East tournament champion Seton Hall. It also has an All-America candidate in Josh Hart.
Oregon (31-6) has claimed 11 in a row and 17 of 19, emphatically claiming the Pac-12 in the process behind the talented Dillon Brooks (who most would agree is a terrific player, regardless of what they think of his silly end-game dust-up with Duke on Thursday).
And Oklahoma (28-7) merely remained in the picture for a No. 1 seed until the final week of the regular season and has arguably the most charismatic (and explosive) player left in the field in senior guard Buddy Hield. He’s not just a sure-fire All-America, but also the two-time Big 12 player of the year and a credible national player of the year option.
That could compose a stellar Final Four. It’ll do quite nicely for a pair of Elite Eight games. And regardless of the outcome, it will yield a pair of worthy national title contenders.
Out West, both Oklahoma and Oregon enjoyed long swaths of dominance in their respective regional semifinals. The Sooners seized control early against Texas A&M, while Oregon pulled away from Duke in the second half. Neither endured much anxiety to seal their first regional final appearances under their current coaches.
Dana Altman’s Ducks possess an abundance of athleticism. But is that enough to deal with the savvy and skill of Lon Kruger’s Sooners? Chances are, how well Oregon contains Hield will dictate who ultimately emerges from Anaheim.
As for the game in Louisville, Ky., it qualifies as appointment viewing. The Jayhawks were the nation’s best team from beginning to end this season and once they adapted to Maryland’s size on Thursday they had little trouble pulling away. But the Wildcats present a different sort of test in the South Regional final.
Kansas faced the nation’s most efficient offense (per KenPom.com) early in the season and lost, a setback against Michigan State in Chicago. It faced the third-most efficient offense in Iowa State and salvaged a split.
Villanova is ranked second in the country in offensive efficiency, and it’s not hard to imagine why after it carved up Miami to the tune of 1.5 points per possession. There might not be a more enjoyable team to watch play offense than the Wildcats, but it’s not as if Kansas can’t score when needed, either.
There’s no guarantee the Kansas-Villanova winner will ultimately snip the nets in Houston. But there’s a real chance their showdown emerges as the game of the tournament.