This Final Four has a full cast of characters—you have your Cinderella story in the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago, led by the will of Sister Jean and Porter Moser. There’s the scrappy Wolverines, who have lost just one game since the start of February and are vying for their second championship in school history. And then you have the heavyweights in Villanova and Kansas.
After one of the wildest tournaments in recent memory, here’s a preview of Saturday’s games.
11 Loyola-Chicago vs. 3 Michigan
Game time: 6:09 E.T. on TBS
You may have been able to call the other semifinal matchup—two veteran teams, both number-one seeds that have been near the top of the polls all season. But according to EPSN’s Darren Rovell, only 550 of 17.3 million people picked the Final Four correctly in the ESPN Tournament Challenge, a number likely comprised of optimistic Loyola alumni and current enrollees.
The Ramblers were a popular upset pick at the beginning of the tournament, but few believed their run would last this long. However, I can’t bring myself to dub them the best Cinderella team of all time…yet. All previous 11 seeds to reach the Final Four have had to go through the number one seed in the Elite 8—LSU in 1986 beat Kentucky, George Mason bested UConn in 2006, and VCU took down Kansas in 2011. Loyola got nine-seed Kansas State.
But the Ramblers couldn’t care less who they play to get here. They reached the Final Four by beating the teams in front of them—take it from another Cinderella, Jim Valvano: survive and advance. This is a good, veteran team that can cause problems for opponents defensively—they have yet to allow 70 points in a tournament game. Don’t be surprised if they are the first double-digit seed to advance to the title game.
On the other side, you have a Wolverine team that has won 13 straight. Like Loyola-Chicago, Michigan did not have to go through the one- or two-seed to reach San Antonio. It’s been a long wait for seniors Duncan Robinson and Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and the Wolverines are favored to get back to their first title game since 2013. But, as has been the case throughout the season, it will come on the back of three-point shooting. When they’re on, they’re on—they shot 58% from downtown against Texas A&M and blew them out of the water, but found themselves squeaking by Florida State after shooting an abysmal 18% from three-point range.
Prediction: Michigan 65, Loyola-Chicago 60
1 Kansas vs. 1 Villanova
Game time: 8:49 E.T. on TBS
If we’re being honest, the first game is just the opener for this one. The odds of the national champion emerging from this game are high (but the way this tournament is going, the odds pretty much mean squat).
Kansas and Duke was the game of the tournament thus far—somehow, someway, this one will be better. These are two very similar teams—veteran guard play and the ability to knock down the deep ball—both teams are in the top-20 in three-point shooting percentage. Devonte Graham vs. Jalen Brunson might be the best single-player matchup we’ll see in the tournament.
The key to the game is the X-factor for each team—Malik Newman for Kansas and Donte DiVincenzo for Villanova.
Newman can hardly be called an X-factor, since he’s arguably been the best player for the Jayhawks over the past seven games. But, if Kansas wants to reach the title game, he has to continue his elite play. He’s averaging almost 23 points per game in the Big 12 and NCAA tournament, and he’s doing it from everywhere on the court. DiVincenzo hasn’t garnered the most stats on the team, but over the course of the tournament, he has provided timely threes and hustle plays that can’t be measured in statistics. It’s imperative that he knocks down a couple three-pointers on Saturday.
It’s the Final Four game we deserve.
Prediction: Kansas 76, Villanova 74