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The Men’s Final Four Will Look an Awful Lot Like the NBA Playoffs

Small-ball, four-out offenses, 3-pointers galore—that’s the kind of basketball we’ll be seeing this weekend. It’s a far cry from the brute-force style that was the recipe for a national championship as recently as last season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There aren’t many stars left in the NCAA tournament. Villanova junior Mikal Bridges is the only player in the Final Four likely to be taken in the lottery in this year’s draft. The common feature among the teams remaining are the systems, not the players. Villanova, Kansas, Michigan, and Loyola-Chicago all play like NBA teams. They use small lineups, spread the floor, and take most of their shots from the most efficient spots on the court: the paint and the 3-point line. They may not have many future NBA players on their teams, but they all run NBA offenses. The NCAA tournament is starting to look more like the NBA playoffs.

Everything starts with 3-point shooting for the four remaining teams. Three are among the top 15 in the country in 3-point attempts per game. The fourth (Loyola) plays a slow pace that artificially restricts its number of field goal attempts, but the Ramblers are tied with Villanova for 15th in the country in 3-point percentage (40 percent). Michigan is the only team of the four not in the top 15 in accuracy:

Every Final Four Team Is Shooting 3s

Team 3PA per game National Rank 3P% National Rank
Team 3PA per game National Rank 3P% National Rank
Villanova 28.7 3rd 40 15th
Kansas 25.1 11th 40.3 11th
Michigan 24.6 10th 36.6 91st
Loyola 18.6 203rd 40 15th

More important than their shooting percentages or number of attempts is the sheer amount of 3-point threats each team has. Their perimeter players are all credible long-range shooters, and they all start either a combo forward or a wing with 3-point range at power forward. Villanova (freshman Omari Spellman) and Michigan (junior Moritz Wagner) also have stretch 5s who can step out and knock down 3s. Only two of the 20 starters in San Antonio this weekend (Loyola freshman Cam Krutwig and Kansas sophomore Udoka Azubuike) don’t take them. Playing that many shooters has a multiplier effect. The defense has to cover so much space that something is always open.

It’s the reverse of the traditional formula for success in March. Instead of one or two dominant scorers who create shots for everyone else, the shooters create driving lanes and room in the paint to finish. There’s no Kemba Walker or Karl-Anthony Towns carrying his team to the Final Four this season. Villanova junior Jalen Brunson and Kansas senior Devonte’ Graham are two of the best point guards in the country, but neither has the elite size and athleticism NBA teams want from top-20 picks at the position. The ball moves on all these teams, and it finds the hot hand. Eleven different players at the Final Four have been their team’s leading scorer in one of their first four games in the tournament. All four teams are in the top 20 in the country in assists.

With so many good shooters on these teams, where the shots are coming from is more important than who is taking them. They all have the type of über-efficient shot distribution the Rockets have made famous under GM Daryl Morey. I added Kentucky, a team with far more NBA talent than any of the Final Four teams, as a comparison point in the chart, with data from the tracking numbers at

Final Four Teams By Shot Distribution

Team % of shots taken at rim % of shots from 3 % of 2-point jumpers
Team % of shots taken at rim % of shots from 3 % of 2-point jumpers
Villanova 32.5 47.1 20.4
Kansas 37.8 41.4 20.8
Loyola-Chicago 42.3 36.1 21.6
Michigan 30.5 43.2 26.2
Kentucky 35.7 25.8 38.4

One of the striking things about the first weekend of the NCAA tournament was the difference in the shot charts between higher-seeded Power Five teams and the lower-seeded mid-major champions they were facing. Arizona took twice as many long 2s as Buffalo in its shocking first-round loss, as did Tennessee in its last-second loss to Loyola in the second round. Michigan State took almost three times as many long 2s as Bucknell in its narrow first-round victory, while West Virginia took over four times as many as Murray State. Not all these games ended in upsets, but the trend lines are still interesting. Since talent is more evenly distributed in smaller conferences, teams that take more efficient shots seem to rise to the top, while programs that stock up on higher-ranked recruits can still win a lot of games despite less-than-ideal shot distribution.

To be sure, all the Final Four teams had to catch a few lucky breaks along the way. Villanova is the only one that didn’t have at least one game in an earlier round where the outcome was in doubt in the final seconds. Michigan needed a miraculous buzzer-beater to escape Houston in the second round. Kansas had to sweat out a potential buzzer-beater from Grayson Allen at the end of regulation to send its Elite Eight victory over Duke to overtime. Loyola has won so many last-second games in the past two weeks that it’s hard to keep them straight. The point isn’t that their offenses ensured deep runs in the NCAA tournament. It’s that a more progressive style of play gave them a chance against more talented teams.

Villanova is the only one that’s supposed to be in San Antonio. Kansas is a 1-seed, but few picked the Jayhawks to beat Duke. This isn’t a typical Kansas team under Bill Self. They had to remake themselves on the fly when Billy Preston, a 6-foot-10 McDonald’s All American, was forced to miss the entire season because of eligibility issues. They didn’t have nearly as much talent as Duke, which featured two lottery picks up front and five-star recruits at every position. But their 3-point-heavy offense allowed them to light up Duke’s matchup zone. That was the difference.

Loyola is an even better example of the power of an NBA-style scheme. Krutwig, a lumbering giant whom SB Nation’s Ricky O’Donnell dubbed “the Nikola Jokic of the Missouri Valley Conference,” is the only traditional big man in their rotation, and he’s averaging 21.3 minutes a game in the tournament. When he’s sitting, Loyola will play either senior Aundre Jackson (6-foot-5 and 230 pounds) or Donte Ingram (6-foot-6 and 215 pounds) at center. They have been closing games with a mid-major version of Golden State’s Lineup of Death.

The national championship game last season was between Gonzaga and North Carolina, both of whom ran post-heavy offenses through a traditional center (Przemek Karnowski and Kennedy Meeks) and brought an NBA-caliber 7-footer (Zach Collins and Tony Bradley) off the bench. There’s still room in college basketball for supersize centers, as Azubuike checks in at 7-foot and 280 pounds, but even programs like Duke and Kentucky are starting to downsize. Their recruiting classes next season are built around versatile wings instead of big men. More traditional blue bloods may try to copy Jay Wright’s formula at Villanova, where he runs one of the most prolific offenses in college history because he emphasizes shooting in recruiting as opposed to NBA measurables.

The problem is that shooting ability is much harder to identify in high school players than size and speed. Few players enter college as knockdown shooters: Bridges turned into an elite 3-point shooter at Villanova in much the same way Kawhi Leonard did when he graduated to the NBA. Schools that don’t reel in the best recruits in the country can win with Villanova’s formula too. Bridges was the no. 96 overall recruit in the country in the Class of 2014. The 3-point shot is the great equalizer at every level of the game. As more college coaches build NBA-style offenses around it, this season’s Final Four could represent the new normal in the NCAA tournament.