2022 Final Four: How big men play a huge role for Duke, North Carolina, Villanova and Kansas


The old adage in college basketball is that great guard play wins in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s certainly been the case lately. Each of the last seven Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards have gone to guards. That adage holds true this year as well, with Duke’s Jeremy Roach, North Carolina’s Caleb Love, Villanova’s Collin Gillespie and Kansas’ Remy Martin all playing vital roles for their respective teams.

But a huge part of the Final Four teams’ success is the frontcourt, too. Each team uses its big men in different ways, setting up for a pair of fascinating Final Four matchups.

On Jan. 23, 2021, Mark Williams registered the only DNP of his college career, not seeing even a second of action in a loss to Louisville. It was Blue Devils’ third straight defeat, and Williams had totaled just four minutes across those three contests.

Less than two months later, Duke faced Louisville again, this time in the ACC Tournament. Williams was dominant: 23 points, 19 rebounds (seven offensive), a block and a steal in a Duke victory. Duke’s season ended abruptly less than 24 hours later after a positive COVID-19 test within the program, but Williams had officially arrived. It turned out that was just the beginning.

This year, Williams won ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and he is a finalist for Naismith Trophy Men’s Defensive Player of the Year. He is ninth in the nation in blocks per game, and he holds opponents to 32% shooting when they post up against him, the third-lowest percentage of any defender in Division I. He’s doing this all while committing fouls at a lower rate than last year, too.

“He has really increased his lateral movement — his ability to guard side-to-side,” Mike Krzyzewski said Tuesday. “As a result, he’s able to get to balls better. Length doesn’t necessarily get you to a ball. Lateral movement does.”

That improvement was especially on display in the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. In those rounds, Duke faced two very good, versatile big men in Texas Tech’s Bryson Williams and Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams. They went a combined 2-13 with a turnover when defended by Mark Williams.

“He is a hell of a defensive player,” Jeremy Roach said after the Elite Eight win. “Love having him on the court. Makes it so much easier for the guards to really try to pressure the ball. They really don’t have to worry if a guy gets past you, you know big fella is always back there to back you up. He is a huge part of this team. We wouldn’t be here without him.”

Williams has been outstanding on the offensive end, too. He’s shooting 76% around the basket on non post-ups, fifth in all of Division I (min. 100 FGA) and nearly 5% better than last year. His 139.5 offensive rating ranks second in all of Division I. Williams, quite simply, has become a force on both ends.

UNC: Bacot makes leap after Tar Heels change offense

With 20 points and 22 rebounds against Saint Peter’s in the Elite Eight, Armando Bacot made two types of history:

  • He was the first player with 20 and 20 in the Elite Eight or later since Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon in 1983.
  • It was Bacot’s 29th double-double of the season, tying Tim Duncan’s record from 1996-97 for most by an ACC player.

That’s pretty good company.

Furthermore, Bacot’s 30.1 defensive rebounding percentage this season is the second-best by any ACC player since 2004, and his 114 second-chance points are third in Division I this season behind Purdue’s Zach Edey and Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe.

Bacot’s always been a solid rebounder and post player on both ends, but this year he’s expanded his game to the pick-and-roll as well. It’s something he rarely did under Roy Williams — who almost always had two traditional big men on the floor — but has opened up for him with the Tar Heels playing a four-out offense under Hubert Davis.

BACOT AS A PICK-AND-ROLL ROLLER

Possessions

Points

2019-20

26

24

2020-21

5

11

2021-22

69

80

The last clip in particular is a perfect encapsulation of Bacot’s growth and how UNC’s changes have helped him grow. Bacot catches the ball on the move, dribbles twice with his non-dominant hand, spins, pivots and then scores, but notice how Baylor defended this play. Brady Manek (No. 45 for UNC) is a terrific outside shooter, so Jeremy Sochan (No. 1 for Baylor) can’t double-team Bacot. With a more traditional post player on the floor (instead of Manek), Bacot would have had neither the time nor the space to score this type of basket.

“I’ve said this before: The chemistry between Armando and Brady has worked from Day One,” Davis said last week. “It just has. They just play off of each other. Their skills complement each other. Their personalities complement each other. When they’re out there on the floor, we are at our best.”

Thanks to a major offense change, Bacot has emerged as a dominant player, and, because of that, North Carolina is two games away from a title.

Villanova: Strength, basketball IQ over height

Villanova has two holdovers from the 2018 national championship team: Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, who is scoring 17.5 points per game on 63% shooting in the NCAA Tournament after 10.2 and 45%, respectively, prior this season. Samuels plays both center and power forward and is a difficult matchup given his diverse offensive skill set.

Bill Self, whose Kansas Jayhawks face Samuel on Saturday, knows that first-hand. Samuels had 15 points — including three 3-pointers — in their 2019 meeting.

“He definitely presents problems,” Self said Tuesday. “In that game he beat us off the catch, but what he can really do is beat you off the bounce. He’s a tremendous driver of the ball and a good shooter.”

While Samuels’ offense has blossomed in the NCAA Tournament, defense remains the strength of his game. Consider this: 280 Division-I players defended at least 25 isolation possessions this season. Of those 280, only one — Texas A&M’s Henry Coleman III — has allowed fewer points per possession in those scenarios than Samuels. He is the perfect defender for Villanova’s switch-heavy system and can (and will) guard every position

With Samuels at 6-7 and center Eric Dixon at 6-8, Villanova ranks 265th in Division I in KenPom.com’s “Effective Height” metric, which is a weighted average of power forward and center heights. However, they more than make up for that with excellence in other areas.

“They have the physical strength to hold their ground,” Jay Wright said Monday. “They have the athleticism to pursue rebounds and defend personnel, and I think they have the basketball IQ that, in relation to their position, is very, very high.”

Kansas: McCormack rises to the occasion

Kansas trailed Miami 35-29 at halftime Sunday. The Jayhawks were disjointed offensively against an aggressive, active Miami defense.

Then David McCormack went to work: a free throw to open the second half-scoring, followed by a monstrous fastbreak dunk, a tough fadeaway jumper and finally a strong putback layup through a foul. After McCormack finished off the old-fashioned three-point play, Kansas’ six-point halftime deficit had become an eight-point lead.

It wasn’t the first time McCormack came up big this March. He also registered 18 points and 11 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ Big 12 Tournament title game win over Texas Tech.

“I thought going into the season, David McCormack would be the key player for us, and now I think it’s obviously David and Remy, because when they play at a high level, then it totally changes our team probably as much as anybody else,” Self said.

McCormack’s 174 points off post-ups are by far the most of any Big 12 player this season, and while his efficiency has been down compared to past years, he still has the ability to score in bunches. Watch his versatility down low in the aforementioned Texas Tech game, against arguably the best paint defense in the country.

“David’s the one guy that can come away with 15 (points) and 10 (rebounds) and not have to be his best, because he has a natural knack for getting the ball in the basket when he catches it in tight,” Self said. “We need David to play well, there’s no question about it.”