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  • Writer's pictureWendell Barnhouse

CBT's Men's and Women's Final 4 Preview

Six games, two Final Fours … and zero bubbles.

That’s where we’re at as we head into the last (sob) weekend of basketball with the men’s Final Four in New Orleans and the women in Minneapolis.

Two years after March Madness went dark and one year after the men’s and women’s Final Fours returned in bubble wrap, the 2022 Division I basketball championships are back as they’re known and loved.

Both Final Fours resemble meetings of the “We Belong” club. The four men’s teams have a combined 432 NCAA victories, 80 Final Fours and 17 titles. The women’s foursome total 303 NCAA victories, 45 Final Fours and 15 championships.

The women’s semifinals will take place on April Fool’s Day. The only foolishness is that three of the teams are No. 1 seeds and the fourth is a No. 2 making its 14th consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Some team named … Yukon?

Oh, right. UConn.

That’s the Connecticut Huskies, lugging the baggage of 11 championship trophies.

Exactly 28 days after party crashing the Cameron Indoor farewell to Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina and Duke will stage the 258th version of their passion play rivalry. After Sunday’s regional finals, there have been 3,566 NCAA Tournament games. The Tar Heels and the Blue Devils have played in 334 of them.

It has taken that many games for basketball’s cosmic tumblers to click into place. Either Duke will avenge its sobering loss or North Carolina will hammer the final nail in coach K’s career. The hype will exceed any semifinal in F4 history. Tobacco Road will light up like a staff meeting in Mad Men.

While the eight survivors don’t have the pedigree or the seeds to fit in the Cinderella category, the first two weeks of both tournaments provided satisfying story lines.

The women’s tourney, long derided for predictable outcomes, had two double-digit seeds (Creighton and South Dakota) reach the Sweet 16. That was a first, but both failed to reach the Elite Eight. The Coyotes lost to third-seeded Michigan by just three, but the Bluejays became Wile E. Coyote to top-seeded South Carolina’s Road Runner, losing by 30.

The men’s tournament provided memorable moments with top seeds tumbling early and unexpected upsets. The East Regional combined seed number of 47 was the highest in tournament history. The previous high was 40 in 1990 and 2000.

Many thanks and much admiration, Saint Peter’s.

Here are College Basketball Times’ previews of the Final Fours. Ladies first.

Women’s Final Four Target Center, Minneapolis All games on ESPN; all times ET.

Friday Semifinals 6 p.m. Louisville (29-4) vs. South Carolina (33-2) 8:30 p.m.* Stanford (32-3) vs. Connecticut (29-5) *- Approximate tipoff time.

Sunday championship 8 p.m. Semifinal winners.

Greensboro Region winner South Carolina

Road to Minneapolis: Defeated Howard 79-21 in first round; defeated Miami 49-33 in second round; defeated North Carolina 69-61 in regional semifinal; defeated Creighton 80-50 in regional final.

Coach: Dawn Staley, 14th season at South Carolina, 22ndoverall.

Star power

· Aliyah Boston is a favorite to be named national player of the year. The 6-foot-5 junior is dominant in the low post. She averages 16.8 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. Boston also has blocked 87 shots, helping South Carolina lead the nation in that category.

· Point guard Destanni Henderson leads South Carolina in 3-pointers made and assists. She’s second in scoring,and steals. The 5-foot-7 senior has started every game the past two seasons.

History lesson: South Carolina is the nouveau riche program in women’s basketball. The Gamecocks have made 10 of their 18 NCAA Tournament appearances, their four Final Fours and won their only national championship since Staley became coach. South Carolina has been ranked No. 1 all season.

Will win it all because: The Gamecocks lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense, rebound margin (nearly 18 per game and are third in scoring defense at just over 50 per game. In four NCAA tourney victories, South Carolina opponents shot 30.7 from the field. In the first-round 58-point demolition of Howard, the Gamecocks allowed an NCAA-record low in points (21) including just eight – eight – through three quarters.

Won’t win it all because: It’s hard to fathom this team not going 2-0. The Gamecocks’ only two losses (one in overtime) came by a total of three points. While South Carolina can be a defensive nightmare, its offense in recent games has often been a bad dream. In seven post-season games (SEC and NCAA tourneys), the Gamecocks are shooting 36.9 percent from the field. Maybe defense wins championships but scoring helps in Final Four games. When opponents can limit Boston’s touches, South Carolina has sputtered.

Wichita Region winner Louisville

Road to Minneapolis: Defeated Albany 83-51 in first round; defeated Gonzaga 68-59 in second round; defeated Tennessee 76-64 in regional semifinal; defeated Michigan 62-50 in regional final.

Coach: Jeff Walz, 15th season at Louisville.

Star power

· Hailey Van Lith, a 5-foot-7 sophomore, is Louisville’s top scorer with 14.3 per game. She exceeded that average in four NCAA victories, totaling 20, 21, 23 and 22. Van Lith has the look of a player who is heating up under the March Madness lights.

· Emily Engstler played three seasons and in two NCAA Tournaments at Syracuse. The 6-foot-1 New York native transferred to Louisville for a chance at the Final Four. She’s the second-leading scorer at 12 points per game and the leading rebounder at 9.2 per game.

History lesson: Walz was hired in 2007. In the 32 previous seasons of Louisville women’s basketball, the program was 4-11 in NCAA Tournament games. During Walz’s tenure, the Cardinals have played in 11 Sweet 16s, seven Elite Eights and four Final Fours. They are the only team in the country to be a No. 1 seed in three of the past four tournaments.

Will win it all because: Defense. The website Her Hoop Stats has Louisville ranked 10th, but the Cardinals don’t rank in the top 15 in NCAA stats in scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense or turnovers forced. They came up clutch in the regional final. Leading 52-50 with 5:31 to play, the Cards blanked Michigan, forcing five turnovers and six missed shots.

Won’t win it all because: When the bracket was released, Louisville was a surprise as the fourth No. 1 seed. In the last two weeks of the season the Cardinals lost at North Carolina and to Miami in the ACC Tournament opener. Based on analytics, Louisville doesn’t measure up. Walz has acknowledged that many in the women's game "wonder how we win so much."

Spokane Region winner Stanford

Road to Minneapolis: Defeated Montana State 78-37 in first round; defeated Kansas 91-65 in second round; defeated Maryland 72-66 in regional semifinal; defeated Texas 59-50 in the regional final.

Coach: Tara VanDerveer, 42 seasons at Stanford, 49 seasons overall.

Star power

· Haley Jones, named Most Outstanding Player of the Spokane Regional, leads the team in assists and is second in scoring (12.9) and rebounding (7.8 per game). The 6-foot-1 junior guard has started 75 of her 82 career games.

· A 6-foot-4 sophomore forward, Cameron Brink is Stanford’s leading scorer at 13.4 per game and makes 56 percent of her shots. She averages a team-best 8.1 rebounds per game. The Cardinal are second in Division I in blocked shots and she leads the way with 89 of the team’s 219.

History lesson: Stanford has won three national championships, the most recent last season. The previous two titles came in 1990 and 1992. The Cardinal are trying for their first back-to-back championships.

Will win it all because: Stanford is a Swiss Army knife in terms of ways to win. The Cardinal are capable of shutting down opponents with stifling defense while also punishing foes with inside scoring and relentless rebounding. VanDerveer has a deep bench and can select different players in different situations to enter the game and provide production. Six different players have been a top scorer, five different players have grabbed the most boards and five different had the most assists.

Won’t win it all because: Both of the Spokane victories were close contests, but Stanford was steadily in control against Texas. However, in the final six minutes of the regional semifinal against Maryland, the Cardinal were shaky and uncertain against the Terps’ pressure. Stanford committed four turnovers and missed five free throws. It survived the stumbling finish, but perhaps the pressure of repeating was evident. Stanford had 20 turnovers against the Texas press in the regional final.

Bridgeport Region winner Connecticut

Road to Minneapolis: Defeated Mercer 83-38 in first round; defeated UCF 52-47 in second round; defeated Indiana 75-58 in regional semifinal; defeated North Carolina State 91-87 (2 OT) in regional final.

Coach: Geno Auriemma, 37th season.

Star power

· Paige Bueckers, the national player of the year last season as a freshman, was out 10 weeks after surgery for a tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear. The 5-11 sophomore guard returned on Feb. 25. In the double-overtime regional victory over North Carolina State, she scored a game-high 27, her best game since returning to play on Feb. 25.

· Azzi Fudd, the No. 1 overall recruit from the 2021 class, missed 11 games with a foot injury. The 5-foot-11 freshman averages 12.4 points per game. She’s accurate from 3-point range (43.7 percent) and from the free-throw line (92.3 percent).

History lesson: The Huskies are making their 14th (!) consecutive Final Four appearance and 22nd overall. Connecticut and Stanford will meet for the seventh time in the NCAA Tournament and the fifth time in the Final Four. Two of the previous four occurred in the championship game with the Huskies winning both.

Will win it all because: With Bueckers – who is returning to her home state for the Final Four - and Fudd healthy, Connecticut is dangerous. They’re more than capable of dominating two games. The injuries hit the Huskies with uncommon losses, but they appear to be rounding into form. The only two seniors - Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa – are key contributors, but otherwise this is a young team.

Won’t win it all because: After winning four consecutive national championships and appearing invincible in the post-season, UConn’s streak was shockingly snapped in the 2017 Final Four. The Huskies last title came in 2016. The women’s game has continued to evolve and thrive. Stanford, South Carolina, and Louisville all are as good if not better than Connecticut.

Men’s Final Four Caesars Superdome, New Orleans All games on TBS; all times ET. Saturday semifinals 6:09 p.m. Kansas (32-6) vs. Villanova (30-7) 7:49 p.m.* Duke (32-6) vs. North Carolina (28-9) *- Approximate tipoff time.

Monday championship 9:20 p.m. Semifinal winners.

South Region winner Villanova

Road to New Orleans: Defeated Delaware 80-60 in first round; defeated Ohio State 71-61 in second round; defeated Michigan 63-55 in regional semifinal; defeated Houston, 50-44 in regional final.

Coach: Jay Wright, 21st season at Villanova, 28thoverall.

Star power

· Senior guard Collin Gillespie leads the team in scoring, assists, 3-point field goals made, and free throws made. Gillespie has played 143 of a possible 160 minutes in Villanova’s four NCAA victories and has committed seven turnovers.

· Senior Jermaine Samuels, a 6-foot-7 forward, who averaged 11 points and 6.4 rebounds during the regular season, has upped his game. In four NCAA games, he’s averaging 17.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and making 63.4 percent of his shots.

History lesson: Villanova is trying for its third national title in the past seven years. When the Wildcats won in 2016, it was the school’s first national championship since 1985.

Will win it all because: The Wildcats do everything well, but nothing great … except shoot free throws, where they are the nation’s best. They are slow and deliberate and make the most of each possession. Villanova is a veteran team and Wright (who has won two national titles) is one of the best coaches in the country. The Wildcats have a weapon few teams have. They lead the nation in free throw accuracy (83 percent, on pace to set an NCAA record). Based on its season average, Villanova is virtually guaranteed 14 “free” points per game.

Won’t win it all because: Villanova basically had a six-man rotation and that got them this far. Junior guard Justin Moore, the team’s second-leading scorer at 15 a game, is out after suffering a torn Achilles tendon with just over 30 seconds remaining in the regional final. It will be a huge challenge to win two games with basically five players. This could be the moment for Bryan Antoine, who arrived in Philly as a hyped prospect but has been limited by injury. Moore’s injury puts him in line for more time.

Midwest Regional winner Kansas

Road to New Orleans: Defeated Texas Southern 83-56 in first round; defeated Creighton 79-72 in second round; defeated Providence 66-61 in regional semifinal; defeated Miami (Fla.) 76-50 in regional final.

Coach: Bill Self, 19th season at Kansas, 29th overall.

Star power

· Ochai Agbaji, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, went from a recruiting afterthought to an All-American. He averages 19 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while also leading the Jayhawks in 3-point shooting.

· Christian Braun provides the fuel and fire. The 6-foot-7 junior guard averages 14.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. He’s second on the team in assists and 3-point shooting.

· Remy Martin, a 6-foot “super” senior guard transferred from Arizona State but was hampered for over two months by a bruised knee. He’s healthy and has averaged 14.8 points over his past six games. He gives Self another dynamic option.

History lesson: Kansas’ last trip to New Orleans was 10 years ago. The Jayhawks, a No. 2 seed, lost to top-seeded Kentucky, 67-59. The Wildcats were led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This is the Jayhawks’ third Final Four trip since winning the title in 2008.

Will win it all because: The Jayhawks are potent offensively; they’ve learned when and how to crank up their defense. Remy Martin’s late-season emergence adds a scoring threat at point guard. Agbaji, a senior guard who is the only member of the All-American first team still playing, broke out of a slump in the regional championship game.

Won’t win it all because: Karma, voodoo, kismet. The spirits could be working against KU. Villanova beat Kansas in the regional final on its way to winning the title in 2016 and again in the Final Four semifinal before winning it all in 2018. After losing starter Justin Moore, nobody gives the Wildcats a chance. And if the Jayhawks make it to Monday, their foe will either be North Carolina — a team on a magical run — or Duke trying to win a title for Coach K.

East Regional winner North Carolina

Road to New Orleans: Defeated Marquette 95-63 in first round; defeated Baylor 93-86 (OT) in second round; defeated UCLA 73-66 in regional semifinal; defeated Saint Peter’s 69-49 in regional final.

Coach: Hubert Davis, first season at North Carolina, first overall.

Star power

· Armando Bacot has double-doubles in his last five games and his 29 on the season equals Tim Duncan for a single-season Atlantic Coast Conference record. A 6-foot-10 junior, he’s averaging 16.4 points and 12.6 rebounds per game.

· The transfer portal delivered Brady Manek to North Carolina when Oklahoma made a coaching change. Davis needed a stretch four in his offense and the 6-foot-9 Manek was a perfect fit. In his last eight games, he’s averaging 19.8 points and shooting from 43.5 percent from 3-point range.

History lesson: Topping the Duke decades note – North Carolina is the only school with Final Four visits in nine decades – the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s and now 20s. Since 1967, North Carolina averaged a Final Four every 3.1 years. The Tar Heels’ last trip was five years ago.

Will win it all because: After a 20-point home court loss to Duke – North Carolina’s fourth loss by 20 or more – the Tar Heels have won 13 of their past 14. The questions – was Davis the right coach? are these guys any good? will they even make the bracket? – have been answered. While the other three teams in New Orleans are also on a roll, it’s hard to argue against North Carolina winning its third title in the Big Easy.

Won’t win it all because: The Tar Heels’ biggest challenge might be winning the semifinal. Four weeks after leaving Duke in the dust and ruining Coach K’s final home game in Cameron, North Carolina must deal with a team that has regained its mojo. The teams each won on the other’s home court. A neutral-site meeting will be one of the most anticipated in March Madness history.

West Regional winner Duke

Road to New Orleans: Defeated Cal State Fullerton 78-61 in first round; defeated Michigan State 85-76 in second round; defeated Texas Tech 78-73 in regional semifinal; defeated Arkansas, 78-69, in regional final.

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski, 42nd year at Duke, 47th year overall.

Star power

· Paolo Banchero, a 6-foot-10 freshman forward, hit his season averages (17 points, 7.8 rebounds) in four NCAA games. What’s eye catching is he went 8-of-15 from three.

· Mark Williams, the Atlantic Coast Conference defensive player of the year, has given Duke an inside presence it has lacked since its last title in 2015. In four NCAA games, the 7-foot-1 sophomore provided an offensive option, averaging 14.5 per game. He made 25 of 31 shots.

· Wendell Moore Jr. is Duke’s veteran, playing in 87 games. The 6-foot-5 forward is the team’s second-leading scorer, second-best 3-point shooter and leads in assists.

History lesson: Starting with three appearances in the 1960s, Duke has been to a Final Four in seven consecutive decades. Mike Krzyzewski is coaching in his 13thFinal Four, an NCAA Tournament record.

Will win it all because: Like the song goes “Fairy tales can come true… it can happen to you… if you're young at heart.” Mike Krzyzewski is 75 and retiring (in case you haven’t heard). His playing rotation includes three freshmen, two sophomores, a junior and a graduate senior. After getting blown out by rival North Carolina in coach K’s final home game, the talented Blue Devils have gone from young and shaky to confident.

Won’t win it all because: Fairy tales aren’t real. This cynical analysis (guess) is that while reaching a 13th Final Four for Coach K was a great relief, delivering his sixth national championship is two more games of too much pressure. In its last three halves (2nd half vs. Texas Tech and Arkansas), Duke was 45-of-78 from the field (57.7 percent.) That is unlikely to continue.

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Special thanks to the NCAA for give College Basketball Times permission to use its Final 4 logos.



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