Every team in the Final Four has a go-to player who can hit a late game-winner. Which one will come up big for his squad in San Antonio?
It’s nearly impossible to reach the Final Four without a big shot or two, even if they don’t qualify for the annals of NCAA tournament buzzer beaters or elicit CBS commentator Bill Raftery’s beloved “Onions!” exclamation. This year, all four teams still standing can lay claim to at least one player who has found nylon when the moment demanded it most, connecting on the gutsiest twos and threes of March to keep his school dancing.
Without the late-game contributions of the players below, the 2018 Final Four might look drastically different. Don’t be surprised if any one of them ends up with the ball in his hands late once again in San Antonio.
Kansas guard Malik Newman
Body of work: Lawrence and Durham are still feeling the aftershocks of Newman’s 13-point overtime explosion, in which he scored every Kansas point in the extra session and finished with a career-high 32 in the Elite Eight win over Duke. His pair of threes in the first two minutes of the second half helped the Jayhawks set the pace for a back-and-forth second half. Since the start of the Big 12 tournament, Newman is shooting 54.9% (28-of-51) from three-point range, taking the Kansas offense to another level in the process, but his success in shooting over Duke’s rangy zone defense is the main reason Kansas survived the Elite Eight’s best game.
Is there more in store? The tournament’s leading scorer got his buckets several different ways in Omaha, but Newman works best with a clean spot-up look from long range, which might be harder to come by against Villanova’s well-trained backcourt in San Antonio. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk’s game-tying three in the final half-minute against Duke (which secured the senior sharpshooter’s first double-double of the season) may disincentivize any dramatic defensive shading in Newman’s direction as a response to Sunday’s outburst.
Loyola-Chicago’s entire starting lineup
Body of work: It wouldn’t be fair to only pick one of the four players whose individual efforts propelled this tournament’s deepest Cinderella run all the way to the Alamodome. Chicago kid Donte Ingram downed Miami in the first round, leading scorer Clayton Custer got the shooter’s bounce needed to send Tennessee home, Marques Townes sank Nevada’s comeback hopes with a three with 6.3 seconds left and Ben Richardson spearheaded a relatively stress-free Elite Eight win over Kansas State with a career-high 23 points, hitting six of seven threes. (“It was [Richardson’s] turn,” said Custer.) And it’s not just the final minute where this philosophy plays out: Going back to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament final, the Ramblers have had a different leading scorer in each of their last five games. While Custer, who transferred after one year of high-major hoops at Iowa State, leads Loyola in scoring and tends to direct traffic in the offensive half-court, five Ramblers average double figures.
Is there more in store? The three key rotation pieces still waiting their “turn” are freshman center Cameron Krutwig and top bench options Lucas Williamson and Aundre Jackson. (Jackson led the Ramblers with 16 points in the second-round win over Tennessee.) Loyola’s crunch-time constant is not the person who takes the biggest shot but the pass that precedes the shot: Only Duke has more assists this tournament than the Ramblers’ 68.
Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo
Body of work: Jalen Brunson is the Wildcats’ unquestioned senior leader and top scorer, and lottery-bound forward Mikal Bridges has proven to be nearly unstoppable when he takes over, but DiVincenzo’s value as Villanova’s redshirt sophomore super-sub was never more evident than during the Elite Eight win over Texas Tech. His drive and dunk with 10:25 left in the game broke an extended Nova scoring drought just as the Red Raiders were mustering up their final push, and his putback slam of a missed three just before the under-four timeout (1:03 of the video below) set Villanova up to secure a Final Four trip by merely sinking free throws down the stretch.
Is there more in store? DiVincenzo redshirted during Villanova’s national title run of 2016–17, but his role is clearly defined within a lineup that’s rarely hurting for scoring. The problems caused by Texas Tech’s defense should serve as a helpful preview for the Kansas game and beyond, in which DiVincenzo’s athleticism should once again be an X-factor.
Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
Body of work: Wait a minute—wouldn’t the Wolverine most deserving of this honor be freshman Jordan Poole, he of the desperation three-point heave that downed Houston and sent Michigan to the Sweet 16? Watch that play again. It’s called “Indiana” and it’s designed to set up Abdur-Rahkman to drive to the basket or draw a foul on the way, as he did late in a mid-January win over Maryland, draining the game-tying and game-winning free throws with 1.2 seconds left. The reason why Poole has the moment to uncork a shot over an incoming closeout is that five sets of Houston eyes are watching Abdur-Rahkman, including two defenders who drift toward him and limit his available options to a wide-open Poole pleading for the ball near the sidelines. Abdur-Rahkman also played the hero in Michigan’s only other regular season win by three points or less, driving for an old-fashioned three-point play in overtime against Minnesota.
Is there more in store? Michigan’s commitment to balanced scoring is the main reason it’s so tough to stop on the offensive end—not to mention a deterrent to latching onto any one hero; Poole has played a total of just 11 minutes in the two games since his buzzer beater—but Abdur-Rahkman is the Wolverines’ first choice decision-maker in key moments. He strafed Texas A&M for 24 points, five rebounds and seven assists in the Sweet 16, and he may be the last member of this group to add a dagger jump shot to his 2018 tournament résumé in San Antonio.