We made it. All the heartache, the frustration, the jubilation and the suspense have boiled down to these final three games. And to the final four teams left standing. It’s not the Final Four most of us expected, but weirdly it is the Final Four that college basketball this year deserves – that Sister Jean deserves, that Devonte’ Graham deserves, that Jordan Poole deserves and that Jay Wright deserves.
But who will cut down the nets in San Antonio? We make a case for each of the Final Four teams. Here are four reasons each squad could be National Champions.
Sophomore guard Malik Newman has been a key component in the Jayhawks’ tournament run. In Kansas’s last four games, Newman has averaged 21.8 points and 5.8 rebounds in 37 minutes per game. He is shooting 48.2% from the field and 44.8% from beyond the arc. He put up 32 points in the Jayhawks’ Elite Eight overtime victory over Duke. Newman is part of a NBA-bound backcourt that includes seniors Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. If Newman continues to be clutch for Kansas, the Jayhawks will bring it home.
It’s hard to find something that isn’t a reason the Jayhawks will emerge victorious in San Antonio – they protect the ball, they rank fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency and they boast savvy guard play. But the Jayhawks’ perimeter shooting makes them an offensive force to be reckoned with. Kansas is shooting 49.3% from the field and 40.3% from beyond the arc, which just edges Villanova’s 40 percent. Mykhailiuk, who hit the big three to force overtime against Duke, joins Newman as clutch players from beyond the arc. Mykhailiuk also broke the single-season 3-point record with 112. Getting the ball in hot hands will be key for Kansas.
They say you should always act like you have been there when it comes to big moments. And when it comes to big games, most of the players have been there so it’s not really an act. But Kansas’s Devonte Graham has never been to a Final Four in his time in Lawrence. This lack of experience is the good kind – the kind that keeps you up late at night and pushes you forward, motivating you to make that final shot. Graham is a leader – he knows it, head coach Bill Self knows it and most importantly the team knows it. The Jayhawks are better when Graham is on the floor. He is averaging 17.2 points, 7.4 assists and shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc. But it is Graham’s knack for orchestrating plays, particularly of the game-winning variety that make him so vital to the Kansas machine. He is a key piece of the championship puzzle.
Kansas assistant men’s basketball coach Jerrance Howard has a nine-year old son who is just as invested in the Jayhawks as his dad. J.J. Howard wrote up a scouting report on Duke that included advice and keys to victory for Kansas. J.J.’s motivation behind the report was simple: because he didn’t want Kansas to lose again and Duke had a lot of weaknesses. Highlights include notes about “stealing the ball” and “rebounding.” The Villanova scouting report is bound to be just as extensive and accurate, so with J.J.’s help, Kansas will have nothing keeping them from cutting down the nets.
Kansas assistant coach Jerrance Howard’s 9-year-old son wrote a scouting report for Duke and it’s unreal. pic.twitter.com/NXjv42OTuG
— ESPN (@espn) March 27, 2018
Saying Less – This isn’t just the title of that Dillon Francis feat. G-Eazy song you like. It’s the second half of the Michigan Wolverine’s mantra for the season, and the tournament. The first half: Do More. Michigan certainly isn’t the flashiest team on the block, something head coach John Beilein knows. He knows there were other Big Ten teams primed for this position, teams like Michigan State or Purdue. This Michigan team is like a snake in the grass, guard-driven with a frontcourt built around variety. The Wolverine’s 13-game win streak speaks to the program Beilein has built, but Michigan’s solid tournament play amidst the Madness speaks for itself.
Defense. There’s no need to say it because you already know. Instead, we’ll will leave you with this image from a Progressive commercial.
Michigan held Florida State to just 31.4% shooting from the field in its 58-54 Sweet 16 victory. They also contested 90 percent of FSU’s shots, per ESPN Stats & Information Data. Michigan is in position to lead the Big Ten in defensive scoring for only the fourth time in 102 years. The Wolverines, under Beilein have never ranked higher than 37th nationally in defensive efficiency. This year they rank No. 4, according to KenPom.com. As long as Michigan sticks to its defensive guns, defeating the speedy Loyola Ramblers shouldn’t be a problem.
Point guard play is often overshadowed by the bigs and the buzzer-beaters. But Michigan’s freshman point man Zavier Simpson is the definition of highlight-worthy. And he will be a big reason the Wolverines survive and advance. The 6-foot sophomore averages 7.5 points and 3.7 assists and shoots about 30 percent from beyond the arc. But much like Michigan itself, Simpson is very sneaky – crafty really. He can drive to the hoop, find teammates inside and stop, drop and open up shop. Defensively he is likely to cause a lot of problems for the Ramblers, who like to play fast and loose. If Simpson can stay consistent offensively and create turnovers on defense, Michigan will be successful.
Loyola’s spiritual guide and beloved good-luck charm, Sister Jean, said she gave up losing for Lent. And for Western churches, the 40-day period of Lent ends on Holy Saturday (March 31st), the day before Easter. But the liturgical season of Lent ends two days earlier on Holy Thursday (March 29). I’m not saying this will impact the game between Loyola-Chicago and Michigan on Saturday. But I’m not saying it won’t impact it either. God works in very mysterious ways. But it all comes down to what you believe and whether or not, as a team, you can all believe together.
Villanova has spent the NCAA tournament not only dispatching opponents, but also popular narratives about the team. In two gritty wins over West Virginia and Texas Tech, the Wildcats showed that 1) as much attention as the offense gets, the defense is also championship caliber and 2) yes, the ‘Cats can, in fact, win games when the threes aren’t falling.
‘Nova held West Virginia and Texas Tech to a combined 36% from the field and 25% from deep. Jevon Carter and Keenan Evans, each team’s respective star, were both limited to 12 points by the ‘Cats, well below their season averages. Injuries limited the Villanova defense during the regular season more than anyone was willing to acknowledge, and now it’s clicking at the right time with everybody back. After bottoming out near 40, the Wildcats defensive efficiency rating on KenPom has risen to 13.
Three-point shooting has been Villanova’s bread and butter this season, and the old “live by the three, die by the three” cliché has been thrown around all month as people waited for a cold shooting night to doom the ‘Cats in a win or go home situation. Well, against Texas Tech, ‘Nova made just four three pointers at a 16.7% clip. It still won by 12.
Over the course of this tournament, Villanova has shown that it can win pretty, and it can win ugly. It can win a shootout, and it can win a rock fight. The fact that Villanova has two big men who are threats from the perimeter affords the ‘Cats great flexibility. The bigs can step out and create driving lanes for the guards, or ‘Nova can completely invert its offense by having Jalen Brunson operate out of the post where his craftiness and vision is lethal. Meanwhile the defense is finally playing at the level Jay Wright expects from his teams. All of this adds up to ‘Nova being a scary sight for the opposition.
Loyola Chicago feels like a bit of an outsider listed with the big names of Michigan, Kansas and Villanova. Ask me if the Ramblers can continue their Cinderella run and the response will be “Why not?”
They weren’t supposed to beat Miami… or Tennessee… or Nevada… or Kansas State. And yet here they are, on the game’s biggest stage, two wins from cutting down the nets.
By now you shouldn’t be sleeping on the Ramblers. (David Goldman, AP)
The true road win in December over Florida was the first hint that the Ramblers were legit and could play with the big boys, conference affiliation be damned. The 10-game winning streak they rode into the tournament was another. If you didn’t take the hints then, you are now.
So how has Loyola Chicago gotten here, and why do they have what it takes to finish the job? Defense, experience and balance.
While we were all being wowed by Trae Young and Marvin Bagley, by Virginia, Villanova, Michigan State and all the other big names, the Ramblers were playing lockdown defense. Only seven teams have cracked the 70-point mark against Loyola Chicago. Nevada’s 68 points in the Sweet 16 are the most the Ramblers have conceded in the tournament. On the season they averaged 62.4 points against, fifth-best in the country. And they check in at 19 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. That’s championship-level defense.
Offensively, five Ramblers average double figures. They also have five players contributing at least three rebounds per game, and five who average at least 1.5 assists. That balance has been on display during the tournament. In each game so far, a different Rambler has played hero, either by hitting the big shot or carrying the offensive load. The top eight players in the rotation all shoot at least 44% from the field, and Loyola Chicago shoots 50.9% as a team. It also shoots 40 percent from three. Instead of relying on specialists, the Ramblers consistently trot out a lineup that consists of five basketball players. They can shoot, they can rebound, they can pass. Take away one, another is ready to step in. Take away two, and there stands a third.
Among the glitz of the one-and-done players and their fast track to the NBA, we sometimes overlook the importance of experience. Sure, the Loyola Chicago roster may not have a lot of experience playing late into March, but that roster has played a ton of basketball. First round hero Donte Ingram is a senior, as is Ben Richardson, who poured in a career-high 23 against Kansas State. Junior Clayton Custer hit the game-winner against Tennessee, while fellow junior Marques Townes hit the big shot against Nevada. Not only does that highlight the team’s balance, but it shows the importance of experienced players ready to shine in the brightest lights.
Loyola Chicago has earned its spot in the Final Four and is equipped to keep the ride going. Having Sister Jean on its side doesn’t hurt either.
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