Three of the teams that navigated the road to the Final Four narrowly survived. In fact, Loyola-Chicago, Michigan and Kansas are lucky to be in San Antonio. Jay Wright knows all about buzzer-beating shots and tournament scares, yet Villanova has not had to sweat this year.
The Wildcats had little to worry about while eliminating Radford, Alabama, West Virginia and Texas Tech by margins of 26, 23, 12 and 12 points. The Mountaineers and Red Raiders made things interesting in minor second-half rallies, but Villanova essentially was on cruise control and arrives 4-0 against the spread.
The Jayhawks needed a little luck to advance. In a Sunday thriller in Omaha, Kansas beat Duke in overtime only after Grayson Allen’s short jumper rolled off the rim at the end of regulation.
Imagine how different this NCAA Tournament would have been without Donte Ingram. It was Ingram — not Sister Jean — who sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Ramblers over Miami 64-62 in the first round. In the second round, Clayton Custer rattled in a jumper in the final seconds to stun Tennessee 63-62. Loyola won its first three tournament games by a total of four points.
Michigan is the most fortunate of the Final Four teams. Houston had a chance to bury the Wolverines with 3.6 seconds remaining in their second-round matchup, but two missed free throws left the door cracked open. John Beilein designed a play that was perfectly executed as Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman dribbled to midcourt and passed to Jordan Poole, who hit a contested 3-pointer from the wing as time expired for a 64-63 win.
This tournament has had all sorts of drama and upsets. Villanova has had none of that. But it’s extremely rare for a team to win six games and a championship without escaping a close call, so Wright should be prepared to sweat because this weekend is not going to be so easy.
Villanova, my No. 1 power-rated team for the past three months, grades 3.5 points better than Kansas. Michigan, my No. 5 team, rates 6 points better than Loyola, but I’m not willing to lay the points to a surging underdog. The lines are tight, and the results should be, too. A breakdown of Saturday’s semifinals:
MICHIGAN (-5½) vs. LOYOLA
Beilein is a master of creating and exploiting mismatches. His most valuable chess piece is 6-foot-11 forward Mo Wagner, Michigan’s leading scorer and rebounder who steps out to make 39.6 percent of his 3s. Beilein uses eight players, and seven of those players are 6-4 or taller. The shrimp is 6-foot point guard Zavier Simpson, a defensive menace. Beilein has been known as an offensive-oriented coach throughout his career, but this is his best defensive team. Michigan ranks No. 8 in the nation in scoring defense (63.1 points per game). In adjusted defensive efficiency, Michigan ranks No. 4 behind Virginia, Cincinnati and Texas Tech. During their 13-game win streak, the Wolverines have allowed only three opponents to score 70 points. But they can win shootouts, putting a 99-72 beating on Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. After hitting 14 of 24 3s against the Aggies, Michigan made only 4 of 22 3s in an ugly 58-54 victory over Florida State. Abdur-Rahkman and 6-6 Charles Matthews are big, athletic guards who complement Wagner and can carry the offense if Wagner is slumping. The Wolverines have overcome three subpar offensive performances in the tournament, and their free-throw shooting is a weakness, but they are tested against much tougher competition than Loyola has faced.
The Ramblers are being called a Cinderella, which is true in a sense because their odds to win the championship were as high as 300-1 entering the tournament. Still, Loyola was a 1½-point underdog in three tournament games and a 5-point ‘dog to Tennessee, and this power-rated as a top 30 team for the second half of the season. It’s not a team-out-of-nowhere story, but it is a No. 11 seed from the Missouri Valley Conference, and the media loves the Cinderella and Sister Jean themes. Sensational storylines aside, Loyola is 32-5 and ranks No. 5 in scoring defense (62.4), so its not winning with smoke and mirrors, lucky last-second shots and a 98-year-old miracle worker in a wheelchair. Porter Moser, who learned from the late Rick Majerus, is a sharp coach. The Ramblers grind on the defensive end and run an efficient offense, shooting 52.4 percent from the field in the tournament. Loyola uses a small-ball lineup, with 6-9 freshman Cameron Krutwig as the only big man, but Ingram, Custer, Ben Richardson and Marques Townes are big-shot makers. The Ramblers are not going down without a fight, but in the end they probably will go down because the Wolverines are the toughest team they have faced all season and Beilein is a schematic wizard.
MICHIGAN 70, LOYOLA 67
VILLANOVA (-5) vs. KANSAS
Wright has the best point guard, Jalen Brunson, and the most skilled offensive team of the four in San Antonio. The Wildcats lead the nation in scoring (86.6) and attack with five players who shoot 38.5 percent or better from 3-point range. Brunson (19.2 points per game) and 6-6 wing Mikal Bridges (17.8) have NBA futures. Donte DiVincenzo, a 6-5 sophomore, and 6-3 Phil Booth add to a deep and talented backcourt. It’s tough to account for four guards who handle the ball and shoot so well. Villanova is often called a small-ball team, but Bridges is a freak athlete and 6-9 forwards Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall are physical players who can shoot from the perimeter, defend and rebound. The Wildcats rank 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency, better than Kansas (40th). Villanova shot lights-out from 3 (44-for-92, 47.8 percent) in its first three tournament games before going cold (4-for-24) and missing several open looks against Texas Tech. The Jayhawks will be the Wildcats’ third consecutive Big 12 opponent, and they will be the toughest to knock out. Kansas has a bigger front line and two elite guards who can trade big shots. Villanova should prevail with slightly better 3-point shooting and defense, but Wright might have to sweat one out for the first time in this tournament.
Devonte Graham will not concede a thing to Brunson in the point guard duel. If Brunson is the nation’s top point, Graham (17.2 points per game) runs a close second. But the Jayhawks got by Duke mostly because of Malik Newman, whose late-season emergence continued when he dropped 32 points on the Blue Devils while Graham was held down. Kansas hopes to utilize its matchup advantage inside with 7-foot, 280-pound Udoka Azubuike, who shoots 77 percent from the field mostly because he dunks a lot. Azubuike is too strong in the low post for the Wildcats, but he tends to get in foul trouble and his free-throw shooting (41 percent) is horrendous and can make him a late-game liability. Also, Azubuike is too slow to step out and defend Spellman on the perimeter. Bill Self does not have much in reserve, which means his four guards must play without a break and get fatigued in the second half. The Jayhawks need Graham and Newman to be hot shooters in sync. Villanova is too versatile offensively.
VILLANOVA 82, KANSAS 78