Final Four Preview and Predictions
The day has finally arrived! Four teams have a shot to achieve their dream this weekend in San Antonio at the Alamodome. This NCAA Tournament has provided fans with everything they could have wanted. Fans saw the greatest upset in Tournament history when UMBC took out top overall seed Virginia. The lovable Loyola-Chicago Ramblers won over the hearts of the nation with Sister Jean as they will attempt to become the first double-digit seed to win it all.
While the left side of the bracket was pure chaos, the right side was pure chalk. Top-seeded Villanova and Kansas took care of business in the East and Midwest to meet and have a chance to cut down the net in San Antonio. This begs the question: who will move on and meet Monday night and play for ultimate glory? Let’s look at the matchups and find out!
No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago
This game should shape up to a defensive battle. Both the Wolverines and the Ramblers attempt to dictate the pace of play with their defensive pressure. Each offense is capable of lighting up the scoreboard, but each is prone to occasional stagnation.
It is safe to say that most casual fans in the nation will be pulling for Loyola-Chicago to continue to shock the world tonight. The showdown between Loyola’s offense and Michigan’s defense will decide the winner of the game tonight. Loyola’s offense does a fantastic job of putting a defense on its heels with their ball movement. The Ramblers average 16 assists per game and are the definition of unselfish.
However, these Wolverines might be up to the task of halting Loyola’s highly efficient offense. Michigan sports three of the best on-ball defenders in the country with Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. These guards are long, athletic and quick laterally. Michigan does a great job of maintaining physicality with their body and hands without picking up fouls.
The key for Michigan is to stay at home against Loyola’s pump fakes. Loyola does a good job at getting their defender in the air since they are such a good jump shooting team. This helps the Ramblers invert the defense as Clayton Custer, Donte Ingram or Marques Townes are all capable of taking their defender off of the dribble and creating plays in the middle of the defense. When the defense collapses Loyola will kick the ball back out and proceed to shoot, take it back in or swing the ball on the perimeter.
Loyola has a way of demoralizing opponents with their use of the shot clock as well. Their ball movement allows them to use all 30 seconds of the clock and get a good look at the rim. The Ramblers, as a team, shoot 50.9 percent from the field. Michigan’s defenders need to work on pressuring the Ramblers and contesting their attempts from the field without fouling.
On the opposite side of the ball, Moe Wagner figures to cause all sorts of trouble for Coach Porter Moser and this Rambler defense. While the Ramblers are ultra-versatile, they lack the big man who can step out to the perimeter and guard Wagner effectively. Cameron Krutwig has done a masterful job of locking down the paint for Loyola, but he will be in uncharted territory tonight.
Wagner is so dangerous because he not only has the ability to consistently knock down three-pointers but also utilize his lateral quickness and take the ball to the rim. Wagner is two inches taller than Krutwig and 15lbs lighter. If I were Moser, I would not leave Krutwig on an island against Wagner.
Michigan’s offense is very hit or miss. The Wolverines showed the world what they are capable of doing to good teams when their offense is clicking, as they rampaged their way through the Big 10 Tournament. But they have struggled to find the same consistency throughout the Tournament.
Michigan wants to utilize on and off ball screens to free up shooters and create open passing lanes to the basket. Loyola needs to stay disciplined when they face these screens and communicate effectively on their switches. If they fail to do so, Michigan will run them out of the building.
One thing to keep an eye on is free throw shooting down the stretch, Michigan is a notoriously poor free throw shooting team. The Wolverines only shoot 66.2 percent from the line and Loyola will target Simpson (51.1 percent) and Matthews (57.4 percent) near the end of the game. If Michigan cannot put Loyola away, the Ramblers showed the world what they are capable of doing to teams at the buzzer (just ask Miami, Tennessee and Nevada).
Ultimately, this game will be a battle of willpower with defense ruling the day on both ends. Michigan’s defense, despite Loyola’s passing attack, is difficult to break down and Michigan will struggle to get open looks from the outside. In the end, Michigan is still a top 15 team in the nation and has too many weapons on offense to hold down all game. Michigan’s defense will keep Loyola in check.
Prediction: Michigan 66, Loyola 63
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas
This game should be the exact opposite of Michigan-Loyola. Two blue-bloods with top-5 offenses that play fast-paced should have fans on the edge of their seat from start to finish. This showdown will also feature two Wooden Award finalists going head-to-head with a chance to further cement themselves as legends within their respective programs.
What is interesting about this game is that both teams have a distinct advantage when they are on the offensive end. This does not mean that either team plays poor defense, but that each team presents unique challenges on the offensive end that have troubled defenses all season. For Villanova, it is their positionless versatility. For Kansas, it is their four-guard lineup with a 7-foot, 280lb matchup nightmare in the middle.
Let’s start with Villanova. Coach Jay Wright usually plays six players significant minutes throughout the game. All six of these players can spread the floor, knock down three-pointers and attack the rim in different ways.
The engine of the Wildcat offense is Jalen Brunson. The unique aspect of Brunson’s game is that he can run the offense on the outside or in the paint. Brunson is the best post-up point guard in the nation. He excels at using his strength to back down opponents while using his exceptional court vision to find open teammates if the opposing team brings the double team. Brunson can also attack the rim from the perimeter while consistently knocking down three-pointers and mid-range shots.
Omari Spellman looks to give Kansas problems too. Wright has done a wonderful job with the development of Spellman this season. Spellman, a 6-foot-9, 245lbs freshman, has turned into a dual threat on offense. Spellman has the highest three-point percentage on a Wildcat offense that lives off of the three at 44.6 percent. Spellman does a great job of flexing out to the corner/wing and hitting threes consistently. He presumes to be a huge matchup problem for the Jayhawks.
Throw in potential NBA lottery pick Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall and any opposing defense has serious problems. If Bill Self chooses to remain in man-to-man, Villanova will have a serious height advantage against the Jayhawk four-guard lineup. Self would most likely put Malik Newman, who completely shut down Grayson Allen in the Elite Eight, on Brunson. However, who would guard Spellman? Udoka Azubuike and Silvio De Sousa do not have the lateral quickness to stay with Spellman on the wing. Self could bring in Mitch Lightfoot to shadow Spellman, but look for him to draw up a hybrid zone that is designed to guard the three-point line.
Changing focus to the other side of the ball, Kansas does a great job of decimating opposing teams in transition. Devonte’ Graham has fantastic court vision and touch as a passer when running the break. Kansas’s wings tend to flank out and widen the court while their big men charge down the middle looking for the lob. This gives Graham the option to throw the long lob or hit Malik Newman, LaGerald Vick or Svi Mykhailiuk on the wing where they can either shoot the three, throw the lob or attack the rim.
Graham’s playmaking ability is critical for Kansas on offense. He averages over 7 assists per game and can shoot the rock or take it to the rack. Graham has struggled with his efficiency throughout the Tournament so that bears keeping an eye on.
The MVP of the entire Tournament to this date is Malik Newman. Newman is an absolute assassin from three and is an underrated defender on the other end. Self likes to run Newman on the baseline off screens to get him open looks from the corner. Newman is capable of creating his own shot off of the dribble as well. If Kansas wants a shot to move on to the title game, they desperately need Newman to score at least 20 points.
Despite all of this, Udoka Azubuike is where Kansas’s advantage lies. There is not a single player on Villanova who can handle Azubuike’s physicality in the paint. “Dok” is the most efficient player on the floor, shooting 77.2 percent from the field. His size allows Graham and Mykhailiuk to throw entry passes over the defense to him as well. Spellman, while a serviceable defender, does not have the strength or size to stop Azubuike. Wright needs to decide whether he will send the double off of a player like Vick or play him straight up.
However, Wright may not even need to decide if Azubuike gets into foul trouble. Azubuike has had extreme difficulty staying out of foul trouble and this limits his playing time severely. Kansas cannot take advantage of this mismatch if Azubuike is on the bench.
Ultimately, look for Self to fall into a creative zone that fixates on defending the perimeter, but this will not stop the Wildcats from putting up big numbers. Kansas will score as well, but Azubuike will fall into foul trouble once again. Villanova’s defense is the reason they slipped by a pesky Texas Tech team in the Elite Eight and that’s the reason they will move on to the title game Monday night as well.
Prediction: Villanova 84, Kansas 79
Featured image by WILX.
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