As Saturday looms, four teams await their chance at destiny, their eyes set on the same goal: bringing home a National Championship.
It’s been a long, weary college basketball season. Amidst scandals, corruption, FBI investigations, and much more, it all comes down to the final weekend. Loyola hopes to complete their Cinderella story and capture their first national title since 1963. Michigan has used another incredible postseason run to come out atop the West Region. Villanova took care of business in the East Region. And Bill Self and Kansas held off a close call from Duke and its star-studded lineup.
We take a look at the Final Four matchups, and make some predictions.
Loyola (11) vs. Michigan (3) - 5:09 CT
Say what you want about mid-majors, but this team has proved they belong and then some. Loyola had to knock off teams the likes of Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State on its way to San Antonio. But just how has this 11-seed from the MVC made it this far?
Well to start, Porter Moser’s boys are HOT. This team has lost just one game since all the way back on Jan. 3. And not only did they best Kansas State, they spanked them, winning by 16 points to seal their Final Four fate.
The Ramblers are an extremely mature, patient, well-coached, disciplined team. However you want to say it, the team has looked solid. All five starters average double figures, meaning any given guy on the court is a threat to beat you on any given night. Their first three games of the tournament came down to the final possession with a different Rambler stepping up each time.
Opposing coaches have had high praise for this year’s bracket busters, noting how well the squad communicates on the floor, switching different screens and getting back in transition to limit easy baskets.
In the other locker room, the Michigan Wolverines are led by one of the best coaches in the country in John Beilein. This team finds itself vying for a National Championship berth after another stellar postseason run and back-to-back Big Ten Tournament Championships. It’s a new look squad this season with guys like Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, and Zavier Simpson making their mark.
It was a rough go the first couple of games in the tournament. The Wolverines barely escaped 6-seed Houston with a Jordan Poole buzzer-beater. The team has bounced back well, however, taking down 7-seed Texas A&M with ease and fighting off 8-seed Florida State for the win.
Mo Wagner will have to be much, much better for the Wolverines tomorrow night if they want a chance at the title. The junior big man shot just 3-11 from the field, including 0-7 from the three-point line and almost fouled out in just 25 minutes.
Every guy on the floor for Beilein is a danger to score from behind the arc and guys like Matthews, Simpson, and Abdur-Rahkman are just as dangerous at attacking and getting to the rim.
Michigan’s uncharacteristically staunch defense and Loyola’s sophisticated offensive attack should make for an interesting and competitive first game tomorrow night. Both teams are comprised of weapons that are worthy of moving onto Monday night, but there can only be one. We might be The Rambler Room, but Sister Jean and the team’s historic run has come to an end. I think Loyola is simply outmatched and out-talented in this one. Beilein has had a week to prepare for this one, and I think their run continues. Michigan 62, Loyola 57.
Kansas (1) vs. Villanova (1) - 7:49 CT
Bill Self’s Kansas team is a national powerhouse and a team we find ourselves talking about every March. This year, the Jayhawks have been led by superb guard play and senior Devonte’ Graham. A Wooden Award finalist and potential First Team All-American, he has been the driving force for the team, averaging 17.2 points per game on 40 percent shooting from deep, 7.3 assists, 4.1 rebounds, and over one and a half steals.
Graham’s fellow backcourt mate, Malik Newman, has also stepped up his game in the tournament. The Jayhawks put together an impressive perimeter themselves. Four guys can shoot it from deep, or get in gaps and score around the rim.
This probably isn’t Self’s most talented team, but it’s one that’s coming together at the right time and stepping up when plays need to be made.
On the other hand, Jalen Brunson and Villanova have looked nearly unstoppable all year long. Brunson isn’t the most athletic player in the country, but he just might be the smartest. Another Wooden Award Finalist, Brunson can break down any opposing guard when he wants to, where he wants to, and how he wants to. He’ll take a perimeter player down in the post, give him the Dream Shake, and finish the play. He might break you down off the trouble and pull up at the top of the paint for a floater. Or he might just use that 41 percent shooting percentage to hit a dagger from deep.
Like each other team left in the tourney, Villanova puts five guys out on the floor who can shoot the rock from deep. Their ability to penetrate and kick, and unselfish play allows for many wide open three-point attempts, almost all of which they capitalize on. Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo are a couple of other guys not to be overshadowed by Brunson and are equally as dangerous.
This is a mature team that is still capable of going on eight, 10, 12-point runs, even when they aren’t shooting well from beyond the arc.
Whenever we are lucky enough to end up with both 1-seeds making it out of their respective regions, we are left with a much anticipated Final Four matchup. This one isn’t any different. Jay Wright and Bill Self are two of the best basketball minds in the country, and this one won’t disappoint. Carter and Brunson will be an intriguing matchup to watch tomorrow. When the dust settles, I think it’ll be Villanova moving on to the championship game Monday. This team is too talented and too well disciplined to dip out just yet. Villanova 73, Kansas 66.