By Zachary Powell | @ZMPowell30
Sports Capital Journalism Program
NEW ORLEANS – The day before his team’s national semifinal meeting with the Kansas Jayhawks, Villanova coach Jay Wright wondered if it was time to discuss the complication his team has faced. Should he address the torn right Achilles suffered by junior guard Justin Moore, and the changes that must be made? He called his leader to find out.
“I just called Collin Gillespie and said, ‘Do I need to talk to these guys about being ready, believing we can do this without Justin?’” Wright said Friday. “He’s like, ‘No way. Everybody is good. Don’t worry about it.’ I feel like we’re in a good place with replacing Justin.”
Villanova (30-7) rattled off nine consecutive victories in March to make its fifth Final Four appearance in school history and the third in six tournaments. Kansas (32-6) will attempt to take down the Wildcats for the second time in the NCAA tournament history between the two programs. The winner will meet Duke or North Carolina Monday night for the national championship.
Moore was injured late in Villanova’s Elite 8 victory over Houston last Saturday. Although the two-way guard from Maryland will be sidelined this Saturday night, Wright and his teammates are confident that others will be ready to perform.
The Wildcats will start senior guard Caleb Daniels in place of the injured Moore. Daniels is a native of New Orleans and is a transfer student from Tulane University. Following his redshirt season, Daniels emerged right away for the Wildcats last year, averaging 9.6 points per game in 25 minutes of action. Daniels has averaged 10.2 points and while converting 85% of his free throws.
“We didn’t recruit Caleb out of high school,” Wright said. “But he played for (former Wildcat) Mike Dunleavy, who told me, ‘I know your culture. He would come to Villanova for the same reason.’ He’s fit in like a kid that started there from day one because he believes in that.”
The Jayhawks are led by Big 12 Player of the Year Ochai Agbaji. The senior guard and leading scorer is averaging 18.9 points per contest this season and shooting 39% from beyond the arc. Ogbaji is shooting just 20 percent from 3-point range in the NCAA tournament. Agbaji appeared to distance himself from his shooting struggles when he posted 18 points, five rebounds, four assists, and four steals in their Elite 8 win over Miami last Saturday.
The Jayhawks are led in scoring by Agbaji, but his supporting cast of teammates help make him the player he is. Remy Martin, the sixth man, is a senior transfer from Arizona State who provides scoring if he must but has a general knack for doing whatever the team needs him to do. Over the past three games, Martin is averaging 49% shooting and a 9-to-5 assist to turnover ratio.
“Remy is probably different than anybody I’ve ever coached,” said Kansas coach Bill Self. “But I’ve loved coaching him because I love his personality and I love his energy and these things. Now I see and have seen what his presence can actually mean and how it can benefit a team. I’m still trying to figure it out, to be honest, how to incorporate him the best I can, but to give him credit because he’s figured out how to fit in with what we do.”
Agbaji also praised Martin. “Just bringing us energy off the bench,” Agbaji said, “being that sixth man that comes in and gives us a different look, kind of changes things up for what they’re scouting against us.”
A few other players that help support the cast of the Jayhawks are Christian Braun, Jalen Wilson, and David McCormack. Braun, a native of Burlington, Kansas, is the second-leading scorer for the Jayhawks at 14.2 points. Behind him is Wilson with 11.0 points and McCormack with 10.1 points.
The Wildcats and Jayhawks will meet for stakes that are nothing new. In the three previous meetings in the NCAA tournament, the winner has become national champion: Kansas in 2008, Villanova in 2016 and Villanova in 2018.