A trio of college basketball heavyweights have survived an upset-laden NCAA tournament.
Villanova, Kansas and Michigan, three of Las Vegas oddsmakers’ top pre-tournament favorites, will join charmed upstart Loyola Chicago at the Final Four in San Antonio next weekend.
That compelling foursome should provide a climactic finish to what has already been a dramatic NCAA tournament. Here’s a look at four things to know about each of the Final Four teams in this year’s NCAA tournament:
How they got to San Antonio: Defeated Penn (16), Seton Hall (8), Clemson (5), Duke (2)
1. One of the least-talented teams of Bill Self’s Kansas tenure accomplished something many of his other teams could not. These Jayhawks survived Self’s Elite Eight hex and beat Duke in a classic regional final on Sunday night to advance to the Final Four. Self entered Sunday with a 2-7 record in the Elite Eight, one loss shy of Adolph Rupp’s all-time record for losses in the regional finals. Now Self is headed back to San Antonio, where his team defeated North Carolina and Memphis in 2008 to win his lone national title.
2. So much for Malik Newman not living up to expectations. The former McDonald’s All-American has been one of the best players in the country this March. In seven games in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, Newman is averaging 22.7 points and shooting over 50 percent from behind the arc. He torched Duke for 32 points on Sunday and hounded Grayson Allen on his attempt to win the game on the final possession of regulation. Newman wasn’t on many NBA draft boards at the end of the regular season, but that may change now. He has a chance to emerge as this year’s Malachi Richardson.
3. The sight of Kansas star Devonte Graham playing all 45 minutes of regulation and overtime on Sunday should come as no surprise to anyone. Bill Self was so adverse to considering what the Jayhawks would look like without him that Graham logged the full 40 minutes in 10 straight games at one point this season and only sat him for a total of 19 minutes in Big 12 regular season and conference tournament play. Graham averaged 17.3 points and 7.6 assists this season en route to first-team All-American honors. He has not shot particularly well in the NCAA tournament, but he did sink a trio of 3-pointers against Duke.
4. The knock on Kansas for most of this season has been that the Jayhawks lack any credible post depth behind Udoka Azubuike. That is changing ever so slowly thanks to the emergence of Silvio De Sousa. With Azubuike plagued by foul trouble against Duke, De Sousa logged 26 minutes and held his own against one of the nation’s best frontcourts. He finished with four points, 10 boards and a block, modest numbers to be sure yet impressive ones considering that the five-star recruit should still be in high school and did not join the Jayhawks until midseason.
How they got to San Antonio: Defeated Miami (6), Tennessee (3), Nevada (7), Kansas State (9)
1. Three of this year’s Final Four teams were among Las Vegas oddsmakers’ six pre-tournament favorites. Loyola, of course, is the exception. The Missouri Valley Conference champion Ramblers were 100-to-1 long shots before the NCAA tournament tipped off, a massive difference compared to San Antonio-bound Villanova (9-2), Kansas (5-1) and Michigan (9-1). There were few signs Loyola was capable of a Final Four run, but the Ramblers did accomplish enough during the regular season to suggest they were better than their seeding. They won at Florida during non-conference play and lost only two games during which leading scorer Clayton Custer played.
2. Only four other double-digit seeds have ever reached the Final Four: LSU (11 seed, 1986), George Mason (11 seed, 2006), VCU (11 seed, 2011) and Syracuse (10 seed, 2016). None of those previous double-digit seeds have fared especially well. Not only did they all fall in the national semifinals, the average margin of defeat was 12.8 points. The worst-seeded teams to win Final Fours are No. 8 seeds. Villanova stunned heavily favored Georgetown for the national title in 1985, and 2011 Butler and 2014 Kentucky both reached the championship game before both fell to UConn.
3. Teaming up to try to win a championship is nothing new for Loyola standouts Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer. They’ve been doing it since they were 9 years old. Richardson and Custer teamed up to win youth national championships in fourth and sixth grade and then led Blue Valley Northwest High School to a 94-6 record and two Kansas state championships. They initially split up for college, but the two close friends reunited when Custer transferred to Loyola after not receiving the playing time he expected as a freshman at Iowa State. Their on-court chemistry is one of the driving forces behind Loyola’s stunning run this season.
4. The greatest influence in Loyola coach Porter Moser’s career was the late Rick Majerus. Moser spent four years on Majerus’ coaching staff at Saint Louis before leaving to become Loyola’s head coach in 2011. Majerus’ fingerprints are all over this Loyola team, from its spacing on offense, to its attention to detail on defense, to its recruiting philosophies. There’s even a “Wall of Culture” in the Loyola locker room that features numerous Majerus quips and sayings. Said Moser earlier this month, “I remember my first year or two at Loyola, him calling me, don’t try to go too fast. Don’t try to go too fast. Don’t skip steps. We felt like we didn’t do that at St. Louis, and I feel like we’re doing that right now.”
How they got San Antonio: Defeated Montana (14), Houston (6), Texas A&M (7), Florida State (9)
1. Michigan will be the favorite against Loyola Chicago on Saturday, but the Wolverines feature nearly as many underdog stories as the Ramblers do. Duncan Robinson started his career at a Division III school because no higher-level programs offered scholarships. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman had no other high-major offers when Michigan signed him late after losing Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the NBA draft. Charles Matthews transferred from Kentucky because he couldn’t earn consistent playing time there. Even Moritz Wagner only had minimal interest from American universities before John Beilein flew to Germany to scout him on the recommendation of a former player.
2. Whereas most Michigan teams have won in spite of their defense under John Beilein, these Wolverines are winning because of it. They’re third in the nation in defensive efficiency, 34 spots higher than their previous best finish during Beilein’s tenure. Michigan torched Texas A&M for 99 points on an eye-popping 1.38 points per possession in the Sweet 16, but the Wolverines’ other three NCAA tournament victories have been defense-driven. Montana scored only 47 points in the opening round, Houston shot only 36.1 percent inside the arc and Florida State committed 14 first-half turnovers and endured two lengthy five- and seven-minute scoring droughts.
3. An impetus for Michigan’s defensive uprising was sophomore Zavier Simpson displaying greater command of the offense and demonstrating that he could defend without getting overaggressive and racking up fouls. That enabled Simpson to regain the trust of the coaching staff and seize the Wolverines’ starting point guard job in early January. Over the course of conference play, Simpson emerged as Michigan’s defensive leader, a 6-foot pit bull who not only prided himself on hounding opposing guards but also wasn’t afraid to scold his teammates if they gave a lackluster effort. Said Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington, “His defensive tenacity is contagious.”
4. Two-time plane-crash survivor Austin Hatch is the most inspiring figure at this year’s Final Four. Eight years after he and his dad walked away from a 2003 crash that killed his mother and two siblings, Hatch had to cope with another tragedy. His dad’s single-engine plane plummeted nose-first into a garage along a residential street in Michigan, killing Hatch’s father and stepmother and critically injuring him. Michigan coach John Beilein honored Hatch’s scholarship offer even though his injuries prevented him from playing Big Ten-level basketball again. He appeared in five games as a freshman and has remained a part of the program behind the scenes ever since.
How they got to San Antonio: Defeated Radford (16), Alabama (8), West Virginia (5), Texas Tech (3)
1. When Villanova defeated Texas Tech in Sunday’s East Regional final, the Wildcats didn’t just advance to the Final Four for the second time in three years. They also notched their 134th win in the last four seasons, moving the Wildcats past 1997-2001 Duke for the most wins in a four-year span in Division I history. The only scholarship player to play in all four of those seasons: Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth, Villanova’s leading scorer in the 2016 national title game victory over North Carolina. Former Wildcats Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart and current standouts Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are among the Villanova players to be involved in three of those seasons.
2. National player of the year candidate Jalen Brunson knows nothing but winning in his basketball career. He has been a part of a high school state title team, a U-19 World Championship team and now a pair of Villanova Final Four teams. That success is no surprise considering the way Brunson plays. He doesn’t wow you with spectacular highlights, head-turning athleticism or jaw-dropping numbers, but he has a high basketball IQ, impeccable court vision and a knack for coming through in big spots. Said a Big East assistant earlier this month, “Everything they do starts with Brunson. He’s so poised, so heady. He makes the right play every time down the floor.”
3. When Villanova won the national title in 2016, there were some NBA scouts who questioned whether the Wildcats had a surefire first-round pick on their roster. Josh Hart proved that wrong last year when he went 30th overall in the 2017 draft. Now Mikal Bridges is making it look silly by blossoming into a potential lottery pick this June. The key to Bridges’ ascendance has been his increased proficiency as a catch-and-shoot weapon. Bridges can still guard multiple positions and attack the basket off the dribble, but now he’s also averaging 18 points per game and shooting 44.6 percent from behind the arc.
4. For Villanova, the biggest win en route to San Antonio might have been its second-round demolition of Alabama. Other games were closer, but the second round represents a psychological hurdle for the Wildcats. Three of the previous four years, a highly seeded Villanova team lost in the second round to a lesser opponent. The only exception was 2016 when the Wildcats went on to win the national title. Said Jay Wright, “I think Jalen Brunson said it best. These guys know the best of this tournament, where we won it all, and we know the worst when you getting knocked out early. So we just respect the fact that anything can happen.”
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