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Final Four preview: Why Villanova is favored over Kansas in the battle of No. 1s

A week of anticipation is almost over. The Final Four is almost here. The second of two games pits top-seeded Villanova against top-seeded Kansas (Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS). With less than 48 hours to go until tip-off, here’s a look at the matchup and the factors that will decide it.

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To call it a clash of the titans would be a bit hyperbolic. But to call it a battle between the two best teams remaining in the NCAA tournament? Not an exaggeration at all.

Villanova is the pace-setter. It’s been the gold standard ever since Virginia fell. Kansas, in beating Duke, earned a shot at the king. It, too, has McDonald’s All-Americans. It, too, has upperclassmen. It has a Hall of Fame coach.

In many ways, the 2018 editions of Villanova and Kansas are similar. They’re both experienced, guard-driven teams that shoot over 40 percent from 3. They’re both better on offense than defense. They’re both spearheaded by Naismith Award finalists.

But there are a few characteristics that distinguish each. Specifically, there are a few characteristics that distinguish Villanova as the favorite.

Villanova’s Omari Spellman could prove to be a problem for Kansas in the Final Four. (Getty)

WHEN VILLANOVA HAS THE BALL: Will Kansas have any answers?

It doesn’t quite seem fair to treat Kansas – a No. 1 seed, after all – as such a clear underdog. But, frankly, it’s unclear how the Jayhawks are going to stop Villanova’s offense. Even the infrequently successful “pack the paint and hope they miss” strategy might be futile.

Nova’s offense is the best in the nation by a significant margin, and the second-best of the KenPom era. Kansas has a top-five offense itself, but the statistical gap between the Wildcats and Jayhawks is wider than the one between the Jayhawks and 34th-ranked LSU or 35th-ranked Buffalo. That’s how ruthlessly efficient Jay Wright’s team is.

And they’re ruthlessly efficient because they’re remarkably consistent. They take 3s more frequently than all but one other tournament team, but don’t rely on the long ball. That’s because they excel from 2-point range and from the free throw line as well. Consider this: Nova has shot 33 percent or better from beyond the arc in 29 games this season. And in 28 of those games, it has scored 1.17 points per possession or more. That’s absurd.

For context, Kansas has made 33 percent of its 3-pointers in 31 games; it has been below 1.17 points per possession in 18 of them. It hasn’t yet been above 1.17 points per possession in the NCAA tournament, despite Malik Newman’s explosions against Duke and Seton Hall.

In other words, as long as Villanova has at least a reasonably below-average shooting night, as opposed to a disastrous one, Kansas is going to have its hands full.

A Jayhawk optimist might argue that its Big 12 brethren established two intriguing blueprints for stopping Nova. West Virginia’s furious press disrupted the Wildcats for around 29 minutes, and Texas Tech’s ferocious halfcourt defense held them to 19-of-57 from the field.

But Kansas certainly won’t be able to replicate West Virginia’s approach, and doesn’t have the personnel nor the depth to replicate Texas Tech’s defensive success. It has Udoka Azubuike, whose rim protection theoretically could change the game. But even West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate couldn’t keep the Wildcats at bay, because their “center,” Omari Spellman, a 45 percent 3-point shooter, can pull any opposing big away from the rim.

There’s really no convincing answer. The Jayhawks’ hope, therefore, lies at the other end.

WHEN KANSAS HAS THE BALL: Could Azubuike make the difference?

Their hope isn’t necessarily a track meet. (Relative to Division I averages, this is actually the slowest Kansas team of the Bill Self era.) Their hope, rather, is a near-unstoppable offensive display of their own. Their hope is a shootout. And their hope is that a balanced, inside-outside attack can win that shootout.

One route to victory, of course, is 60-plus combined points from Devonte’ Graham, Newman and Svi Mykhailiuk. But the only true differentiating advantage Kansas has is Azubuike and his size. He’s a legitimate 7-footer. Nova’s tallest player is Spellman at 6-foot-8.

Azubuike isn’t necessarily a dominant back-to-the-basket player. But get him the ball around the rim and chances are he’s going to score. He shoots 77 percent from the floor, better than any other D-1 player. He’ll build brick houses from the free throw line if you send him there, but Nova, with its somewhat short bench, probably can’t afford to risk foul trouble. It can’t afford to sacrifice the advantages Spellman and Eric Paschall give it at the other end.

So although Kansas’ offense might not be at its high-powered best if it’s running through the post, it might behoove the Jayhawks to get Azubuike early touches. That will at least force Villanova to make decisions. How physical – and wiling to foul – will the Wildcats be? Will they send doubles? Bell Self should probably pose those questions. Once he has the answers, he can adjust accordingly. And he does that as well as almost any coach in college basketball.

Spellman is still the bigger matchup nightmare among the centers, and Wright knows precisely how to use him. But Azubuike will be a problem, too. And he might just have to have a massive impact for Kansas to win.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer and basketball for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.