If the Warriors and Rockets of the past few years haven’t already debunked the great basketball myth that is “live by the 3, die by the 3” – they’re alive and quite well, thank you very much – then perhaps the most recent game from the best team in college basketball over the last four seasons can squash it.
Villanova heads into its second Final Four since 2016 with 101 wins since Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo stepped foot on campus, and an NCAA-record 134 since Mikal Bridges arrived and redshirted in 2014-15. The 3-ball has been a big part of the Wildcats’ success in their unprecedented stretch of success, with Kris Jenkins’ iconic buzzer-beater from long distance two tournaments ago delivering the school’s first national title in 31 years.
Those Wildcats hit an even 50 percent of their 3s during their six-game tournament run after shooting a pedestrian 34.4 percent prior to the Big Dance, but this current group has looked as comfortable beyond the arc all season as Jay Wright does in a three-piece suit. After knocking down 39.8 percent of its triples through the Big East tournament, Villanova connected at a 41.4 percent clip while coasting to four double-digit wins in the East region.
That latest number, of course, includes their woeful 4-for-24 performance from deep in the regional final against Texas Tech, a night so off that many old-school basketball minds would have believed the Wildcats shot themselves right out of the tournament.
So why is Villanova still here? And more importantly, why is Wright’s team the prohibitive favorite both to beat fellow No. 1 seed Kansas on Saturday and to eventually cut down the nets at the Alamo Dome on Monday night? Let’s dive into a little bit of data from kenpom.com founder Ken Pomeroy, who receives his statistics from STATS’ industry-leading data feeds to power his proprietary model and deliver the most respected college basketball advanced metrics in the game.
Jenkins’ shot will likely serve as the defining moment from Villanova’s run as college basketball’s king, but those champion ‘Cats weren’t overly reliant on 3s in their tournament run. These ones? They’re taking what was an already heavy load from long distance to another level.
That would seem to leave Villanova prone for an upset if its 3s aren’t falling, but this isn’t a one-dimensional bunch. The Wildcats have allowed 99.2 points per 100 possessions overall this season, then put together a raw defensive rating of 93.8 during the tournament. They held a Texas Tech team that shredded Purdue with 78 points on 68 possessions (1.15 ORTG) in the Sweet 16 to 59 on 66 possessions (0.89 ORTG) in the regional final.
Villanova has done a few other things in this tournament run that should have Kansas concerned come Saturday. For the season, the Wildcats have rebounded 29.5 percent of their missed shots, which ranks 140th in the country. In the tournament, they’ve grabbed an offensive board 35.3 percent of the time – including 20 on 38 missed shots against Texas Tech – which over the course of the season would have ranked 11th nationally.
All those second chances have added up. The Wildcats get just 16.4 percent of their total points at the free throw line, 311th in the country per KenPom. They doubled that in their two games at the East regional, scoring 32.3 percent of their points in the wins against West Virginia and Texas Tech at the charity stripe.
What’s all this add up to against a Kansas team that’s even more accurate beyond the arc, knocking down 40.3 percent of its treys?
Potential trouble in a few ways. Six of the Jayhawks’ seven losses have come when their opponent has hit at least 39 percent of its 3s, and considering five of the six Wildcats who see 25 minutes per game hit 38 percent of their 3s, there’s a clear recipe for that to happen Saturday.
But let’s say Villanova goes cold again. Kansas is 290th in opponent’s offensive rebound rate per KenPom, allowing its foes to grab 31.5 percent of their misses over the course of the season and 33.1 percent in its three consecutive four-point wins in the tourney. As it turned out, that was the recipe for trouble in the worst home loss in the Bill Self era. Texas Tech – those guys again! – rebounded 18 of its 38 misses at Allen Fieldhouse in January, powering some extra possessions that helped the Red Raiders overcome 6-for-24 3-point shooting to roll to an 85-73 win.
The Jayhawks have been better at rebounding their own misses in the tournament as well – 33.1 percent, a significant upgrade over their 29.4 rate overall. But it’s tough to pinpoint a spot where Kansas has an edge over Villanova. Knockdown 3-point shooters in Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman? The Wildcats answer with Brunson, Bridges and Omari Spellman and will raise you a DiVincenzo. As we mentioned, Villanova doesn’t get to the line much but it’s more than Kansas, which scores just 14.1 percent of its points at the stripe (348th nationally). Defense? We told you how the ‘Cats have clamped down in the tournament. Kansas, which has given up 101.5 points per 100 possessions overall this season, is at 102.0 in the tourney – 107.0 if you remove the first-round win over Penn.
The only tournament loss for Villanova in the last three seasons came when Wisconsin slowed the game to a snail’s pace in last year’s second round, a 58-possession slugfest, but the best strategy for Bill Self’s team might be to speed things up. Check out the difference between when Villanova plays a game under 70 possessions and when Kansas play above that this season.
KenPom projects Saturday’s Final Four contest at 68 possessions, which is right in line with both teams’ average adjusted tempo (68.7 for Kansas, 68.6 for Villanova) this season. And despite the fact that this is just the second meeting of No. 1 seeds in the tournament in the past decade, KenPom gives Villanova a fairly lopsided 71 percent chance of winning and predicts the final score as 82-76.
Both teams shoot 40 percent from 3, and they’re a combined 46-0 when they hit at least 37 percent from beyond the arc, so there’s a pretty straightforward path to success. But it’s Villanova that has more to fall back on if the shots aren’t falling.
Unless Self decides to pick up the pace.