Can Loyola-Chicago continue its dream run? Or will No. 3 Michigan advance? These factors will determine who advances to the title game.
The Final Four is set. The field features two No. 1 seeds and one No. 3, all of which are blue bloods. Villanova, Kansas and Michigan—all tournament champions in their respective conferences—have posted a combined 36-3 record over the last six weeks. Then there’s the tournament’s Cinderella, No. 11 Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers hadn’t made the tournament since the 1984-85 season. Now, they’re two wins away from the program’s first National Championship in 55 years. Their 14-game winning streak is the longest active among the Final Four teams, with their last loss coming way back on Jan. 31. The Ramblers may be the greatest Cinderella story in recent memory, but they’re no fluke. They’re every bit the championship contender as the other three teams in San Antonio.
Whose dream season will continue and whose will come to an end? Let’s take a look at three key elements for the first game of national semifinals, which tips off on Saturday, March 31 at 6:09 p.m. ET.
Who can get out in transition?
When Loyola-Chicago and Michigan meet in the Final Four, both teams will be quite familiar with the opponent, for reasons that go beyond modern scouting. These two are mirror images of one another in terms of style. Both feature efficient offenses and outstanding defenses. Loyola-Chicago is ranked 60th and 18th, respectively, in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, while Michigan is 31st and fourth. Both teams play at a deliberate pace, with Loyola ranking 315th in adjusted tempo, and Michigan checking in at 326th. Both teams can feel unstoppable when they get it going from behind the arc. They may do it on different scales, but Loyola-Chicago is the Michigan of the mid-major world. Or, if you prefer it the other way, Michigan is the Loyola-Chicago of the power conferences.
Given that these teams are so similar and both so good at what they do well, the game could turn on something they do only selectively. Neither Loyola-Chicago nor Michigan wants any game to turn into a track meet. At the same time, both the Ramblers and the Wolverines have the weapons to get out in transition when it suits them. We saw Loyola-Chicago do so in clawing its way back from an early 12-point deficit against Nevada in the Sweet 16, while Michigan ran Texas A&M out of the gym in the same round largely by getting good threes early in the shot clock. The transition game is not a strength for either team, but both have proved this season that they have the club in the bag.
Quick, easy buckets are going to be hard to come by in this game. If one team can get, say, 10 points in transition, that could make all the difference.
Mo Wagner vs. Cameron Krutwig
The Ramblers do most of their damage from the outside in, with six of their top-seven players standing 6’6” or shorter. The lone exception is Cameron Krutwig, the true freshman who lives on the block. Krutwig’s footwork, soft touch and deft passing ability have turned him into a fulcrum of Loyola-Chicago's offense. Despite that, he might be neutralized in the matchup with Michigan.
Nevada forced Loyola-Chicago to bench Krutwig for long stretches in the second half last week because of its team speed. The matchup played more to the skill set of Aundre Jackson, who ate up most of the minutes typically reserved for Krutwig. Now, to be sure, Michigan isn’t going to play the same game Nevada did. The Wolverines aren’t equipped to get up and down the floor in that way and they certainly aren’t going to go small when arguably their best player is their 6’11” center. Mo Wagner, however, plays a game offensively that can make Krutwig just as uncomfortable as he was against Nevada’s collection of quick wings.
Wagner is really a center by default. He’s a stretch-forward by style, playing just as much on the perimeter as he does in the paint. Krutwig isn’t exactly a rim defender, but getting him out on the perimeter will open up the lane for cuts and drives by Michigan’s wing players. What’s more, the Wagner-Krutwig matchup is a significant advantage for Michigan when it is on offense. Could we see more Jackson and Lucas Williamson, as we did in Loyola’s Sweet 16 win over Nevada? And, if so, what will that do to Loyola-Chicago’s offense? Those are two big questions, the answers to which will go a long way to determining who plays in the national championship.
Loyola’s hyper-efficient offense vs. Michigan’s stifling defense
Loyola’s adjusted offensive efficiency is merely the start of the story. Thanks to their prowess from behind the arc, the Ramblers rank fifth in effective field goal percentage, which gives greater weight to threes to account for the additional point. For the sake of comparison, Villanova ranks second in the country in effective field goal percentage, while Kansas is sixth. Michigan, which ranks 47th, is last among the Final Four teams.
On top of that, Loyola is 11th in the country in three-point percentage and ninth in two-point percentage. The Ramblers may not get a ton of possessions per game, but more often than not, they make those possessions count. The Ramblers aren’t just a great Cinderella story—they earned their way to this point.
Michigan’s defense, however, will be their toughest test of the season. Just look at what the Wolverines have done in the tournament. They’ve allowed no more than 72 points in a game, and that came in a 27-point blowout against Texas A&M. They last time they allowed more than 72 points was in an overtime win against Minnesota on February 3, and the last time they did so in regulation was in a loss at Purdue in January. We’ll get some offensive fireworks in the Final Four, but those will come in the nightcap. Loyola-Michigan projects as a war of attrition, and few teams have been better than the Wolverines at wearing down opponents this season.