Final Four

2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four Preview

68 teams entered the tournament field with one common goal: get to San Antonio. Of those 68, only four have achieved that goal. Villanova, Kansas, Michigan, and tournament darlings Loyola-Chicago.

The heart of a champion has been tested of all the remaining teams on the road to San Antonio, each proving that their will to win separates them from the others who have exited out of this tournament. Will the powerhouses that reside steamroll the weaker competition, or will there be a close tenacious fight to earn a chance to play for the ultimate prize of a National Championship?

Tournament Match-up History:

Michigan Wolverines vs. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

Hop in a DeLorean and let me take you back to 1964. That is the last time the Michigan Wolverines and the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers played against one another in a tournament game. It was a sweet 16 match-up that saw the Wolverines edge out Loyola-Chicago 84-80.

Villanova Wildcats vs. Kansas Jayhawks

You don’t have to go quite as far back to look at the last time these two played each other. As a matter of fact, some of the players that will be headlined in this match-up were on the roster when they played each other in 2016 (DeVonte’ Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Legarald Vick for Kansas and Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth for Villanova). The two have only played each other twice in tournament history, each gathering a victory over the other where the winner then went on to win the National Championship that same year. In the first battle between these two in the 2008 Sweet 16, Kansas defeated the Wildcats 72-57. Eight years removed from that loss, Villanova would get revenge and defeat the Jayhawks 64-59 in an Elite Eight contest.

How each team got here:

Michigan:

First Round: No. 3 Michigan Wolverines def. No. 14 Montana Grizzlies, 61-47

Jumping out to a small three-point lead at the half, the Wolverines would use a strong second half to create separation from this pesky Montana unit. Michigan would outscore the Grizzlies 30-19 in the second half and limit them to only 47 total points when the final buzzer sounded. Junior guard Charles Matthews was the focal point for the Wolverine offense and ended with a game-high 20 points.

Second Round: No. 3 Michigan Wolverines def. No. 6 Houston, 64-63

These two teams would trade blows like prizefighters down the stretch. After a missed putback from Matthews rolled off the rim followed by a Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman missed lay-up on the following possession, it seemed as if the Wolverines tournament ride was coming to an end. With 3.6 seconds remaining and the score sitting at 64-62, Houston then failed to connect on two free-attempts to put the game out of reach. Leaving the door open for the Wolverines. Freshman Jordan Poole would throw on his cape and rush to the rescue saving the Wolverines season and ushering them into the sweet 16 by burying a DEEP desperation three as the clock struck all zeroes. Outside of Poole, Moritz Wagner was crucial to Michigan achieving the victory gathering 12 points, seven rebounds, and three assists.

Third Round (Sweet 16): No. 3 Michigan Wolverines def. No. 7 Texas A&M, 99-72

The Michigan offense would explode for 99 points in their dominant win over the Aggies of Texas A&m. This game was never in doubt for Michigan as they pulled away early and never looked back. Upperclassmen leaders Abdur-Rahkman and Wagner would each chip in 20-plus points in the blow-out win.

Fourth Round (Elite Eight): No. 3 Michigan Wolverines def. No.9 Florida State, 58-54

Final Four

Photo via: Alex Gallardo/ AP

Simpson drove into the lane then kicked it out to Duncan Robinson for a three, giving Michigan a 10-point lead with just under two and a half minutes remaining. From that point on, Florida State would scratch and claw their way back into the game but never took the lead back over the Wolverines. A putback from Phil Cofer saw the Seminoles get to within two points with just 22 seconds remaining. Michigan would connect on both their free-attempts and Florida State could not match the scoring on the other end, ending the game and giving Michigan it’s first First Four appearance since 2013. Mathews was the catalyst for the triumph over the Seminoles as he poured in a game-high 17 points.

Loyola-Chicago:

Making their first tournament appearance in 33 years, it has been a series of close calls for the first three rounds for the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago. In their first three victories of this tournament, their margin of victory was a combined four points. As the underdog in each of their match-ups, seeding proved not to be a factor for them as they Ramblers came out of each game stronger and more hungry than their opponent.

First Round: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago def. No. 6 Miami Hurricanes, 64-62.

Miami would gather a missed Cameron Krutwig lay-up and send Lonnie Walker IV to the free-throw line for a one-and-one. After missing the front end, the Ramblers would push the ball and hand it off to Donte Ingram at the top of the three-point line where he would sink the game-winning bucket, sending Loyola-Chicago into the next round. Guard Clayton Custer led all scorers with 14 and the hero of the game, Donte Ingram, helped by adding 13 of his own.

Second Round: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago def. No.3 Tennessee Volunteers, 63-62.

Much like the last game, it was a nail-biting finish that played with the hearts and brackets of every college basketball fan. The Volunteers would not go down without a fight as they would storm back from a 10-point deficit with four minutes remaining. After an and-one layup by big man Grant Williams put Tennessee up one with just 20 seconds left, Loyola-Chicago put the ball in the hands of their best playmaker Clayton Custer. Custer would rise above his defender and put up a jumper that hit the front rim, then the backboard, then found it’s way in to give them the one-point victory. Narrowly excaping yet again. It was forward Aundre Jackson that led the Ramblers to the victory by totaling 16 points on 5-7 shooting and connecting on all of his six free-throw attempts.

Third Round (Sweet 16): No. 11 Loyola-Chicago def. No. 7 Nevada, 69-68.

With Loyola-Chicago being battle-tested through the first two rounds, this was a game that fit right into their wheelhouse. With the Wolfpack of Nevada on the attack spearheaded by the twin guards Cody and Caleb Martin, the Ramblers lead was reduced to one with less than a minute to play. The game was put on ice when Custer drove the lane and kicked it to Marques Townes who pumped faked once took a step to his left and drilled a three-pointer sending Loyola-Chicago one step closer to San Antonio. It was Townes who was the leading scorer for the Ramblers as he contributed 18 points while also collecting five assists on the night.

Fourth Round (Elite Eight): Loyola-Chicago def. No. 9 Kansas State, 78-62.

Final Four

Photo via: Brett Davis/ USA TODAY Sports

This game was dominated by Loyola-Chicago. Their coaching staff along with the fans could finally breathe a sigh of relief in the final minutes of a game as they cruised to a 16-point victory and moved into the national spotlight of the Final Four. This time it was Senior guard Ben Richardson who would showcase his sweet stroke and explode for 23 points on 6-7 shooting from beyond the arc.

Villanova:

First Round: No. 1 Villanova Wildcats vs. Radford Highlanders, 87-61

Unlike the University of Virginia, this game saw a one seed take command and defeat a 16 seed. Six Villanova players scored in double figures and the team shot a combined 59.6% from the field as the marched forward to the next round and the  Of those six players, AP Men’s College Basketball player of the year Jalen Brunson led the way for the Wildcats with 16 points.

Second Round: No. 1 Villanova Wildcats vs. Alabama Crimson Tide, 81-58.

One of the best guards in the nation, Collin Sexton, was able to collect 17 points but the Crimson Tide proved to be no match for the high octane offense of Villanova. At the half-way mark, the deficit sat at five in favor of the Wildcats, but projected lottery pick Mikal Bridges would come out of the locker room for the second half with a scorers mentality and catch fire. Bridges ended the game with 23 points and left Alabama playing from a deep hole the entire second half, resulting in another blow-out victory for the Wildcats.

Third Round (Sweet 16): No. 1 Villanova Wildcats vs. No. 5 West Virginia Mountaineers, 90-78.

After using an 11-0 run after trailing by five in the early stages of the second half, Villanova proved that they have the grit to hang in games and play from behind if necessary. While the 15 turnovers harmed Villanova throughout the game, chalk that up to the aggressive defense in which the Mountaineers pride themselves on. Pitting two of the best guards in the nation against one another in Jevon Carter and Jalen Brunson, it was Brunson who would get the upper hand in this game as his leadership and timely baskets kept Villanova within striking distance all game. Brunson ended with a game-high 27 points and the Wildcats looked strong and battle-tested heading into their next match-up.

Fourth Round (Elite Eight): No. 1 Villanova Wildcats vs. No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders, 71-59.

Final Four

Photo via: Greg M. Cooper/ USA TODAY Sports

After falling into a 15-point hole, the Red Raiders would make an attempt to come back but only got it as close as five points. The led was trimmed to five following a made three from Texas Tech’s own Branden Francis. Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo came flying through the lane to putback a monster dunk with four and half minutes remaining. The Wildcats would start to pull away following that dunk, closing out the game on 15-10 run, leading to their second Final Four appearance in three years. Brunson was the hero yet again, as he led all scorers with 15 points while also tallying four assists and two steals.

Kansas:

First Round: No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. Penn Quakers, 76-60.

This game was simple for the Jayhawks, put the ball in Devonte’ Graham’s hands and let him lead you to victory. While the Quakers hung around this game longer than expected, the level that Graham was on gave Penn no shot at an upset. Graham would finish the game with 29 points, six assists, and three steals.

Second Round: No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. Seton Hall Pirates, 83-79.

Miles Powell rotates to the top of the three and snaps the bottom of the net, cutting the Jayhawk lead to four with just four minutes remaining and sending fear and doubt into Rock Chalk Nation. As time winded down to just around a minute left with the score sitting at 68-63, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk slapped home a three-pointer to push the lead to eight and eventually end Seton Hall’s tournament run. Kansas turned to their other stellar guard in Malik Newman who would contribute 28 points in the win off 8-14 shooting and knocking down four threes along the way.

Third Round (Sweet 16): No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 5 Clemson Tigers, 80-76.

With a 20 point lead following a Graham corner-three with 18 minutes remaining, it seemed as if the Jayhawks were about to embarrass Clemson. Clemson came storming back as Shelton Mitchell would take an errant in-bound pass and stride down the lane for an authoritative dunk, hacking the Kansas lead to six with just under two and half minutes to go. Then the Tigers went cold and Kansas was able to escape with another four-point victory over a tough opponent. The combined efforts of Malik Newman and DeVonte’ Graham aided in the Jayhawks punching their ticket to the Elite Eight. Newman recorded 17 points while Graham added 16 of his own.

Fourth Round (Elite Eight): No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. No. 2 Duke Blue Devils, 85-81.

Two of college basketballs ‘Blue Bloods’ created a lot of attention for one of the best games of the tournament. Rightfully so. Trailing three-points with the clock winding under 30 seconds, Kansas in transition, Devonte’ Graham would find Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk who calmly stepped into his three-point shot and tied the game up at 72. After a Grayson Allen bank shot rattled around the rim multiple times before falling out for Duke, the national audience got to experience the first overtime game of this year’s tournament and watch as these two teams fought for an extra five minutes.

Kansas is lucky they had Malik Newman because he would score ALL of the Jayhawks 13 points in overtime…ALL! With Kansas up five, Grayson Allen tried to get Duke back into the game but failed to convert on a pair of three-point attempts with the seconds winding down. The Jayhawks got their third consecutive win with the margin of victory only being four points and they would cut down the nets as the Midwest regional champions and a spot in the Final Four. Continuing his stellar tournament, Newman single-handedly got Kansas the victory with a new career high, 32 points.

Predictions:

No. 3 Michigan Wolverines def. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers – 62-57

As much as the Cinderella story is great and they have taken down a number three seed in this tournament already, I believe the high energy and playmaking ability of big man Moritz Wagner will be too much for the Ramblers to deal with. On top of that, the Wolverine defense can be very difficult to score on. Michigan is only allowing 59 points per game to their opponents and as long as they can outscore the Ramblers then I think they will be in good shape. This is not to say the Ramblers do not have a shot at winning, I would say that this is a good match-up for them. With the decision making of guard Clayton Custer and other dangerous scoring threats such as Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson, Michigan better focus on those three and get out to an early lead if they want to advance to the National Championship. If it is a close game that comes down to the final minute it will be interesting to see how it plays out, with both teams proving that they thrive under pressure.

No. 1 Villanova def. No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks – 81-71.

With both doing their jobs as number one seeds getting to the Final Four, this match-up will determine the winner of the National Championship in my mind. This game will be won on the interior as well as off the bench.

Villanova must take advantage of the athletism as well as the sweet stroke of Omari Spellman who can shoot the three as well as put it on the floor. For Kansas, the sheer power of Udoka Azubuike is something the Jayhawks must exploit early in this game and possibly get Spellman into foul trouble. The impact off the bench from Villanova with Dante DiVincenzo essentially being their sixth starter is what gives Villanova the edge in this game. Kansas likes to play around with their line-up sometimes going with three or sometimes four guards and in this instance going with the four-guard offense would not be a bad idea as it will be important in limiting Villanova’s production from the perimeter. Villanova possesses the rare ability for each player to be comfortable stepping out beyond the arc and letting it go.

The big-time players of Brunson, Bridges, Graham, and Newman will show up in this game and each will leave their own signature mark when the game is over. Two teams that are so evenly matched-makes it hard for one to decide a winner. This game will be close until the three-minute mark when Villanova uses one of their long runs from Bridges and Brunson and puts the game out of reach.

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