If there is one warning I can offer you this Easter weekend, it is this. If you bet against Sister Jean and Loyola of Chicago, you do so at your own risk.
But as they took their incredible journey all the way to the Final Four in San Antonio, the Ramblers made a couple mistakes. One came when they licensed their 98-year-old chaplain's name and image. You've seen the T-shirt that says "Worship, Work and Win -- Sister Jean." Folks, the Big Fella in the sky cannot be happy when you take His name in a commercial vein.
That is why I believe it's OK for me to ride with Derek Stevens of The D downtown and his $25,000 bet to make a million on the national championship. I won't have quite that much on my ticket, but I'm still going to take his alma mater Michigan -- at least in the first national semifinal. I'm even willing to lay the five points.
Another reason I'm going with Derek's Wolverines is the other mistake Loyola made on its way to the Alamo. It is actually not their fault at all, but the Ramblers enjoyed royal treatment when they returned home from their regional in Atlanta. Whether they wanted to or not, they found out that no city lifts its sports stars onto a higher pedestal than Chicago. You don't even have to win a championship to be a hero in the Windy City. The problem is when you elevate an 11 seed like that all week long, it doesn't help the Ramblers prepare mentally for what they've got to do this weekend.
Now let's be perfectly honest about this Loyola team -- and I do stress the word "team." I love the way the Ramblers play, getting guys open and driving to the basket. They have made more than 40 percent of their 3-pointers this season, and they have been one of the best in the tournament at clutch buzzer-beaters, winning their first three games by a total of four points.
Loyola will need that touch of fortune to continue, because professional talent awaits in San Antonio. Michigan features two players who figure to make NBA rosters next fall -- Mo Wagner from Berlin and Charles Matthews from Chicago. When it comes to defensive matchups Loyola is going to have an especially tough time with Wagner, because it doesn't have the size, and if you follow Wagner, you have to chase him outside when he shoots the three.
Coach John Beilein was also able to take the Wolverines into the film room this week and show them how poorly they played at times in beating Florida State. With 18- and 19-year-olds, attitude is so important in a situation like this.
So this is where the Ramblers' magic ride comes to an end. But as I bet against them, please let me know if the sky turns dark.
The second game Saturday features the battle of the heavyweights. Villanova and Kansas are the last No. 1 seeds still standing. The Jayhawks have a four-year veteran point guard in Devonte' Graham plus the transfer from Mississippi State who became their best player -- Malik Newman. Since the start of the Big 12 tournament Newman has led the Jayhawks in scoring six times in seven games, making 55 percent of his 3-point shots and scoring 32 in their Elite Eight overtime victory vs. Duke.
With Newman and Graham operating in the Kansas backcourt, Villanova will have its hands full. This is the best team that 'Nova has played in the tournament, and if the Jayhawks start knocking down their threes, look out.
The Wildcats résumé, though, is superb. During the regular season they blew out Xavier by 40 points, and they rolled over Gonzaga by 16. Jalen Brunson, the son of an NBA player, gets high marks for his leadership at the point. As VSiN's Amal Shah put it, Brunson reflects coach Jay Wright's demeanor on the court. He's very calm when the heat is on.
So I'm sticking with 'Nova -- not just to eliminate Kansas but to beat Michigan in the championship game and cut down the nets Monday night. Full disclosure: I have a two-team, five-point teaser for the national semifinals. I took Michigan down to a pick-'em, and I elevated the Jayhawks to a 10-point underdog.
Yes, I'm going against Sister Jean during Easter weekend, but I'm not completely on my own. Remember this bit of history. 'Nova was named after St. Thomas of Villanova, and that school is the oldest Catholic university in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Holy Week, after all, is not just for Chicago.