2022 NCAA Championship Preview | The Morning Dunk
We've made it to the finale of The Big Dance, let's enjoy this one while also taking note of some incredible prospect cases being made.
We’ve reached the end of a magnificent run.
The 2021-22 NCAA Men’s Basketball season will wrap up on Monday, as North Carolina will battle with Kansas for the crown.
After much uncertainty in terms of upsets in each region of the bracket, one top seed still made it to the title. The other, however, had an unclear path yet navigated it brilliantly through countless wins over fellow “blue blood” powers such as UCLA, Duke, and even a more recent top program in Baylor.
What the Tar Heels did during this tournament is what March Madness is all about. Believing in the team that you have, the camaraderie, the coaching, and “trusting the process” are all driving forces into forging ahead for the chance to cut down the nets. And all of those core values tie back to one word: faith.
It requires a massive amount of faith and trust in the work put in over the course of one year for some or four or five years for others. Or, if you’re the head coach of one of these squads, we may be talking about decades of learning and perseverance to make it here for the first time or get back for another shot.
That’s why we should celebrate this game first and foremost. I understand I’m here to highlight the prospects and what to watch for from a scouting perspective, but I won’t be solely watching the championship or any game from the tournament for only that purpose.
If you love the game, the game will love you back. And that means—as Rashad Phillips said on a recent episode of Draft Deeper—appreciating the game. ALWAYS appreciate the game, its players, and its coaches.
Now that the ground rules are set for how to experience the championship, let’s talk about some specifics and prospect cases, starting with the betting favorite Kansas Jayhawks.
Prospects: Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, Jalen Wilson, Remy Martin, David McCormack
Let’s get the biggest story out of the way first: Ochai Agbaji.
During Kansas’s tournament run, Agbaji has been a little up-and-down, especially in the earlier games. An argument could’ve been made that before Saturday night, fellow teammate Christian Braun had been the steadiest performer on the perimeter for the Jayhawks during March.
Agbaji started to reach for that mantle during the Elite Eight showdown with Miami, and he fully embraced lead shooter responsibilities against Villanova.
I say “lead shooter” because Agbaji finished with 21 points, primarily coming off threes. He was 6-for-7 from deep, and he started off 5-for-5, putting on a breathtaking shooting clinic.
He was the talk of Twitter during the game, but many were trying not to overreact to what they saw from Agbaji. Personally, I thought the performance was the perfect display of the damage he can do without having too much offensive responsibility.
Don’t get me wrong, Agbaji has taken steps this year to improve his effectiveness off a live dribble. He’s put together more coordinated drives and dishes over the course of the year, but his off-ball scoring efficiency will forever remain his calling card. The less Agbaji has to put the ball on the deck, the worse it is for the opposing defense.
Agbaji rarely stops moving within the flow of the offense. He will cut backdoor, run off screens, and can even relocate and work off hand-offs to get downhill on straight-line drives. But it’s when teams lose track of him because they help on David McCormack in the post that the game gets really messy for the defense.
If you give Agbaji open corner shots consistently, forget it. At least make him work off ball screens and make him consistently have to sprint, stop, and pop to try and force some level of difficulty for a deadly marksman. Agbaji being able to move and sit in one spot is too easy for someone whose shot preparation is arguably the best in the draft class.
That happened far too often on Saturday because of the chaos Braun created as a slasher and McCormack as a low-post force. Agbaji reaped the rewards, and he further enticed NBA teams to give him looks in the lottery as an experienced sniper from the perimeter who doesn’t always need the ball in his hands to go nuclear.
Speaking of Braun, he’s only further impressed me over the course of March. Even though he didn’t come alive until late in the game, Braun’s consistent pace, poise, and toughness give the Jayhawks a physical yet nuanced identity when balanced with the shooting and interior scoring of his starter counterparts.
While not as dynamic of a playmaker as some would like him to be due to the lack of an advanced handle and wiggle, Braun’s still in control of the ball off the bounce and a heady ball mover. Unselfish in nature, Braun can orchestrate plays in transition or in the halfcourt and isn’t afraid to mix it up inside for an and-one that gets the crowd going.
This one-two punch of Agbaji and Braun has been too much for the majority of Kansas’s opponents this year and North Carolina will be no exception. The Tar Heels have the size in Armando Bacot to wall off opponents around the basket, and they have versatility on the perimeter defensively thanks to Leaky Black; however, Carolina doesn’t have TWO great one-on-one stoppers to contain both Jayhawk studs. I’ll be curious to see what the game plan looks like, but having Bacot available to fight down low against McCormack should help UNC stay home on shooters more consistently throughout the game.
Other prospects to take note of in this one include Jalen Wilson, who may or may not declare for the 2022 draft but still likely has an NBA future, transfer Remy Martin and the aforementioned McCormack. While I’m not likely to rank any of the three barring Wilson declaring, Martin and McCormack have done themselves favors in the tournament as far as securing looks from pro teams. Martin’s mid-range game and McCormack’s seemingly impossible touch on difficult fadeaways have been important X-Factors for Kansas and should add some intrigue to front-office debates regarding who should earn some attention in the UDFA market.
Prospects: Caleb Love, Brady Manek, Armando Bacot, RJ Davis, Leaky Black
I love when podcasts couldn’t have been better timed.
Last week on Draft Deeper, Stephen Gillespie and I hosted Adam Spinella from The Box and One, who gave his case as to why Caleb Love shouldn’t be forgotten in the 2022 draft class.
Admittedly, I’ve fallen off of the Love bandwagon over the course of the last few years due to the inconsistent nature of his game. Love is a streaky shooter who falls off the face of Earth in losses, and he hasn’t put his scoring package together on runners and around the basket. His game hasn’t been efficient enough to scream first-round draft pick.
But if all you’ve seen of him is his dazzling display of offense from all three levels in the tournament, you’d take me as a fool and tell me to better myself as a scout.
That’s how good Love has been in March. Not even just in the national field, but even towards the end of North Carolina’s regular season and into the ACC Tournament. Love has reminded everyone of how deadly he is as a sharpshooter while also mixing in enough footwork to get to the rim to keep me intrigued. On Saturday against Duke, Love even hit a number of tough floaters from the free-throw line to really grab my attention.
Those more nuanced scoring attacks are what I’ve been looking for from Love during his college tenure. While his finishing numbers leave a lot to be desired, he’s come alive and put together some impressive film at the best time.
Scouts and executives who had possibly written Love off, such as myself, are getting to see him put it all together under the brightest lights and are likely writing him back in as a draftable prospect. Some who had him already firmly in the second round may even consider slotting him closer or into the first.
I will remain cautiously optimistic about Love and not get too crazy as far as big board placement. However, I’d be lying if I said he will not move AT ALL once the latest editions of my rankings start rolling out toward the end of April.
In order for Carolina to pull off an upset, Love will have to perform as spectacularly as he did against the Blue Devils. He went for 28 points on 11-for-20 shooting while also making some great plays on the wing defensively. Love even held his own defending at the point of attack, which is another question I’ve had about him during my evaluations. All will be required from him against Kansas.
As for his backcourt mate RJ Davis, who is technically a prospect himself, he will also need to bring balance and shooting to this unit as he always has. In terms of better careers up to this point for the Tar Heels between Love and Davis, my answer would have to be Davis. Consistency speaks volumes, and even though he doesn’t possess the physical tools to attract scouts like Love, Davis’ shooting, playmaking, and efficiency have been far ahead of Love from a totality standpoint.
I would suspect at some point Davis will be on the radar of NBA teams, but whether he declares or remains at Carolina for another stint is yet to be determined. Regardless, he will have to shoot the lights out and score over the likes of Agbaji, Braun, and Dajuan Harris—which is no small feat to ask of any guard.
On the interior, Bacot has been one of the best bigs in all of college basketball this year and certainly in March. Going for 20 rebounds just seems to be expected at this point from him at this level, and he will make life difficult for McCormack on the block. The bad news for Bacot, however, is he doesn’t have the footwork and mobility to counter McCormack on the opposite end. Bacot’s scoring numbers may be impacted outside of any offensive put-backs he can walk into, which takes away a valuable part of the balance for the Tar Heels offensively.
This leaves one more unsung hero to add into the mix, other than Black who made his first three in quite some time against Duke: Brady Manek.
Stephen and I talked about Manek on one of our more recent episodes of Draft Deeper and why he’s making a sneaky case to pop onto some draft boards.
Manek’s shooting, toughness, and scoring versatility off floaters and drives has surprised some evaluators, myself included, in terms of how it could possibly translate at the next level. Thriving as the fourth or fifth option for UNC at times, Manek has bombed away from deep off wide-open looks and has made opponents pay off hard close-outs.
It wouldn’t shock me to see Manek walk away with the best stat line of anyone in this game, as he might have plenty more of those open opportunities come his way. Wilson for the Jayhawks has been underrated all year defensively, but if Carolina’s guards are able to penetrate as easily as they did against Duke, it may force Wilson to come over and help contain the drive while McCormack stays home on Bacot to prevent the lob. When that happens, look for Manek to capitalize on open looks and further add credibility to his case as someone who can provide value coming in off the bench at the next level.
This game will be one hell of a contest, and I can’t wait to watch it all unfold live.
As for myself, I just want to thank EVERYONE who has read The Morning Dunk at any point throughout this season. This column will return next year as it’s meant to be one of our guides for readers during the college season, but I’ll shed a tear as I close this chapter of its life cycle.
Following the top storylines week in and week out while highlighting some underrated prospects from other leagues and countries really became one of the best parts of my weekend.
Keep up with my writing over the rest of this draft cycle, as I’ll look to highlight NBA rookies and sophomores along with contributing toward individual prospect breakdowns and the usual array of group pieces we like to write here at No Ceilings.
Plenty more is in the works from our whole team, so stay tuned for more incredible draft content!
Excellent piece, loaded with interesting “what ifs”, should be one hell of a game, thanks Nathan!!