What has the potential to be one of the most exciting and eventful Final Fours in recent memory kicks off in San Antonio Saturday night. A big part of the allure is that, for very different reasons, all four teams left standing seem to be fully capable of winning two more games and cutting down the nets.
Let’s look at biggest reason why each of the four national semifinalists will take this thing home, and then one reason why we should pump the brakes on that optimism.
Why they’ll win it: They’re the best double-digit seed to ever make the Final Four
The easy route here would have been “divine intervention,” but we don’t take the easy route at SB Nation. Plus, Villanova’s got its own religious mojo working.
Four double-digit seeds, including three 11-seeds, have made the Final Four before the Ramblers. None have ever advanced to play for the national title, and all four were beaten in their semifinal game by at least eight points.
The reason to believe Loyola will perform better than its double-digit predecessors is because Loyola is better than its double-digit predecessors.
The Ramblers have ranked in the nation’s top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency for most of the season. On their way to the Final Four, they’ve held four teams blessed with next-level talent — Miami, Tennessee, Nevada, and Kansas State — to under 70 points. Their season of average of allowing just 62.4 points per game is the fourth-best in the country.
But this isn’t a team that can only win rock fights. In fact, the Ramblers might have the best half-court offense of any team still standing besides Villanova. They shot 57.4 percent from the field against Kansas State on Sunday, the 24th time they’ve shot at least 50 percent from the field in a game this season. No team in the country can claim more. All five starters average double-figures in scoring, and four of those five are shooting better than 50 percent from the field for the season.
They’re well-rounded, they’re poised, and they’re battle-tested. The big stage shouldn’t overwhelm them.
Why they won’t win it: The competition
Loyola had to take down some good teams in order to win the South Region, but the three squads that are joining the Ramblers in San Antonio are all better than anyone they’ve faced up to this point.
This is the best defensive team John Beilein has coached at Michigan. The Wolverines have an absolute force in the middle the likes of which Loyola hasn’t seen at any point this season, and they have the size and athleticism at every other spot to keep the Ramblers from having the type of success they had against teams like Tennessee and Miami. If Loyola does get by the Wolverines, they’ll have to deal with a No. 1 seed with multiple pros in the championship game.
Loyola has the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year in Clayton Custer, but it doesn’t have a potential NBA player who can take a game over if his teammates are overwhelmed by the talent their facing. The Ramblers don’t have a Gordon Hayward to turn to like Butler did in 2010, and because of that, it’s hard to see them winning back-to-back games against the elite of the elite in college basketball.
Why they’ll win it: They’re the best defensive team still standing
It feels strange to focus on defense when talking about a Beilein team, but this one demands it. Beilein has never coached a team that has finished a season ranked better than 37th in defensive efficiency. The Wolverines are currently No. 4.
Michigan has swallowed up its first four opponents in the NCAA tournament, allowing only Texas A&M to score more than 70 points. And that was only because the game was well in hand throughout the second half. In the West Regional Final, the Wolverines limited a red hot Florida State team to just 54 points on 31.7 percent shooting from the field.
Zavier Simpson will be the best on-ball defender in San Antonio, Moe Wagner has dedicated himself to being a capable rim protector, and Beilein has size and strength at every other spot on the floor.
Another reason for optimism? This is just the fourth Michigan team in history to win at least 30 games in a season. The previous three all wound up playing for the national title.
Why they won’t win it: The offense has been inconsistent
To get to the Final Four, Michigan has played three really sub-par offensive games and one damn near perfect one. Based simply on what happened against Houston alone, it’s easy to make the case that the Wolverines shouldn’t even be here. It took a handful of missed free-throws and a miracle shot at the buzzer for Beilein’s team to advance on a night where it looked like an inferior team for 39 minutes and 58 seconds.
After doing whatever it wanted and hanging 99 on Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, Michigan shot just 4-of-22 from beyond the arc in the win over Florida State. Outside of that game against the Aggies, Wagner, Duncan Robinson, and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman have all been downright bad on offense throughout the tournament. West Region MOP Charles Matthews has picked up the slack, but that alone might not be enough to beat Loyola on Saturday, and it certainly won’t be enough to beat whichever top seed the Wolverines would face on Monday.
Why they’ll win it: They’re the best team
Pretty straightforward here. Villanova has been the most complete team in college basketball this entire season. They’re also the class of the four teams still chasing the national championship.
Jalen Brunson has already been named the Associated Press national player of the year, Mikal Bridges is a few months away from being a lottery pick, Donte DiVincenzo has the ability to go off for 30 if the other stars are having off nights, and Omari Spellman is the versatile big man the team was sorely lacking a year ago. The Wildcats check every box on the profile of a national champion.
Why they won’t win it: An over-reliance on the three-pointer
Just like it did two years ago, Villanova has arrived at the Final Four after winning its first three games with pristine offense and then slugging out a rock fight in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats were just 4-of-24 from three against the Red Raiders, but got 29 points at the free-throw line to make up the difference. They also held their opponents to just 33.3 percent shooting from the field.
In 2016, ‘Nova bounced back from an equally uneven offensive performance in the regional finals against Kansas to set a Final Four record with a 44-point blowout of Oklahoma. Two nights later they took down North Carolina in one of the greatest national championship games ever played.
Maybe recent history will repeat itself this year. Or maybe the Wildcats’ over-reliance on the outside shot will cost them the sport’s biggest prize. Both Kansas and Michigan have the pieces necessary to prevent being exploited by Villanova’s “small ball” style. The Wildcats won’t be able to create the same types of mismatches they’ve been able to against virtually every other team on their schedule. Maybe they can overcome that obstacle by simply being better at the style than their opponents. Maybe the can’t.
Why they’ll win it: Devonte’ Graham is due
It’s remarkable to think Kansas has made it this far despite getting so little from the Big 12 Player of the Year and national POY finalist. Graham is shooting just 18-of-53 (33.9 percent) from the field in the tournament so far, and just 8-of-25 (32.0 percent) from beyond the arc. He’s also committed 12 turnovers.
Thankfully, in Graham’s stead, Malik Newman has been arguably the best player in the tournament. The former five-star recruit turned Mississippi State transfer has averaged 25.7 points per game in the Jayhawks’ last three games, and scored all 13 of KU’s overtime points in its Midwest Regional Final win over Duke. If he keeps that up and Graham is able to shake whatever funk he’s been in, there’s no reason to believe that won’t be enough for Kansas to win two more games.
Why they won’t win it: They have a big man problem
Udoka Azubuike is the only big-time post presence on this Kansas team. He’s also fouled out of the Jayhawks’ last two games, is a horrendous free-throw shooter, and doesn’t have the versatility to guard a guy like Villanova’s Omari Spellman or Michigan’s Moe Wagner. That is a scary combination of facts.
Silvio De Sousa has provided a nice lift for Bill Self’s team, but a guy it feels unwise to trust a kid who was in high school 12 weeks ago with major minutes in the Final Four. That means Self is either going to have to go super small and risk being destroyed on the glass, or Azubuike’s going to have to find a way to stay out of trouble and maybe knock down a clutch free throw or two.