SAN ANTONIO — A common criticism of college basketball is that it’s no longer an aesthetically pleasing sport on the offensive end. Not enough quality shooters, not enough passing, not enough creativity. Just an endless succession of ball screens late in the shot clock leading to futile heaves at the rim.
Not all of that criticism is justified, but there is sufficient truth in it. There is a lot of ugly basketball in every NCAA tournament.
That will not be the case Saturday in the first Final Four game between Michigan and Loyola Chicago. These are teams that know how to play and are a joy to watch.
It will not be fast-break basketball, and it likely will not be high scoring. The defenses are too good to allow anything easy, and there won’t be a huge number of possessions. But if you like teams that move the ball in constant search of good shots, this is a game for you.
In his 40 years as a college head coach, John Beilein has had some gorgeous offensive teams. He puts an emphasis on skill and sets it in motion with the genius of a gifted choreographer.
So when the Michigan coach says he is wowed by what Loyola does with the ball, it’s the highest form of flattery.
“This thing is a thing of beauty,” Beilein said of the Ramblers. “Now, people have great offenses. Do they have people who can all shoot and all see the floor? That’s the real thing here. Their plays are pretty. But the way their team runs their concepts is a thing of beauty.”
The way Porter Moser’s team runs its concepts is straight out of the Rick Majerus handbook. Moser was an assistant to the late Majerus at Saint Louis, when the big man had the Billikens rolling a few years ago, and that’s where he got a lot of his ideas.
“In his Wisconsin accent, [Majerus] would say, ‘Spacing is oh-fense and oh-fense is spacing,’ ” Moser related. “I took so much about the spacing from him and then we added a little pace to it. We kind of called it pace and space.”
Loyola’s pace deceives the metrics. Ken Pomeroy’s site says the Ramblers are the 285th fastest team on the offensive end of the floor out of 351, but they’re nowhere near as glacial as that sounds. The ball moves quickly when Loyola possesses it — if there were a passes-per-possession stat, the Ramblers would rank very high.
The goal is to stress defenses with ball movement, creating scramble situations where the opponent cannot rotate fast enough to keep up with the ball. It may take a while for that to lead to the best shot — but Loyola has a way of getting there. The Ramblers are ninth nationally in 2-point shooting percentage (.568) and 11th in 3-point percentage (.402), because they work tirelessly to get open shots.
A large part of doing that is having players willing to pass up a good shot for a teammate’s great shot. Five Loyola players are between 248 and 321 field-goal attempts on the season, underscoring the team’s unselfish nature. And that group doesn’t even include the guy who was the Most Outstanding Player of the South Region, Ben Richardson, who scored 23 points in the regional final but has attempted only 129 shots all year.
Five Loyola players have at least 57 assists on the season. Game to game, everyone is willing to let someone else be the star.
“You’ve got to get guys that are willing to share it, move it, be unselfish,” Moser said. “And that’s why we recruited so many guys that come from winning programs, seven state champions.”
What Loyola will run up against Saturday night is not your quintessential Beilein team. This is the best defensive unit he’s ever coached, which will present a challenge to the Ramblers’ flowing offense.
But Loyola’s biggest problem, literally and figuratively, is Michigan center Moe Wagner. The 6-foot-11 German is a major matchup problem for the Ramblers, due to his versatility. He is a classic Beilein big man, a threat from all over the court.
Loyola starting center Cameron Krutwig is 6-foot-9, 260 pounds and a bit of a throwback. He is most comfortable in the paint, banging around near the basket. He doesn’t possess the foot speed to chase anyone around the perimeter — and that’s where Wagner will be much of the time.
Wagner has launched 147 threes on the season, so he can drag opposing centers away from the basket. But if Loyola counters by going smaller and quicker the way it did against Nevada, putting 6-5 Aundre Jackson on Wagner, guess where Beilein will send his big man? Inside to post up.
Thus Wagner looms as the key to the game. If he’s shooting well, Loyola is in trouble. But he did have a 0-for-7 night from 3-point range in the regional final, and if he spends too much time perching on the perimeter without making shots, that will be a problem for the Wolverines.
Wagner defies Teutonic stereotype — he is far from stoic on the court. Emotional and emotive, Wagner sometimes has to talk himself down during timeouts.
“He enters into third person,” Beilein said. “He starts talking to Moe. When he starts talking to Moe, we are quiet and let him talk to himself.”
The prompts the obvious question: Moe, what do you say to yourself?
“You don’t want to know,” he said with a laugh.
Most of us don’t know German cuss words, so any profane self-loathing picked up by courtside microphones would probably sail right over our heads. But here’s what we can understand and enjoy: a night of skilled offensive basketball. Loyola and Michigan should provide it Saturday night.
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