Upsets defined the NCAA tournament for most of the last two weeks, marking even more madness this March than usual. Sister Jean became the most famous nun in sports. A No. 16 seed (UMBC) topped a No. 1 seed (Virginia) for the first time in the men’s tournament. Buffalo busted brackets. So did Kansas State and Florida State and Syracuse.
By Sunday evening, though, the Final Four field had been set for next week in San Antonio, and order had been restored to the college basketball universe. Mostly. Sister Jean and Loyola-Chicago did become the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the national semifinals, following LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011) as the lowest seeds to ever advance that far. But that’s about where the chaos theory ended in this NCAA tournament. Instead, the upsets took a breather and the other three teams to win their way to Texas were ranked second (Villanova), third (Kansas) and 11th (Michigan) by the seeding committee before the tournament started.
If the first week was all about nuns and retrievers and fruit laying waste to brackets, the final week of this dance will be about the basketball. Good teams and great players, more or less. Both notions are necessary for a sport that spent much of 2017-18 in crisis, with an FBI investigation looming and some of the sport’s most respected coaches either defending the game or strongly saying that it needed immediate and lasting structural change.
The programs that were ensnared in the probe—schools like Louisville, Arizona, USC and Auburn—either didn’t make the tournament or fell early, as those invested in college basketball saw the spotlight shift back to the game itself. The NCAA would love nothing more than if this Final Four weekend was about Jay Wright and Jalen Brunson of Villanova, Bill Self and Devonte’ Graham of Kansas, John Beilein and Michigan’s stingy defense and, of course, Sister Jean and her rambling Ramblers. There can never be too much Sister Jean.
Villanova embodies the turn that tournament took as the Final Four approached. The Wildcats spent the majority of the season as one of the two best teams in college basketball. (The unit that often out-ranked Villanova was Virginia, which became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a 16.)
On Sunday, the Wildcats didn’t outlast Texas Tech, a 3 seed in the East Region. They beat the Red Raiders soundly, 71-59, despite shooting only 33% from the field and going 4 of 24 from 3-point range. The victory marked No. 134 for Villanova’s program in the last four seasons, which broke Duke’s record for most wins in a four-year span (1997-2001) in the history of Division I basketball.
The Wildcats have the toughest Final Four matchup in Kansas, one that feels more like a national championship game than a national semifinal. That goes both ways, of course, as the Wildcats boast two stars in Brunson and swingman Mikal Bridges. Villanova can shoot the ball as well as anyone. They entered their Sunday contest with a 60% effective shooting rate (which weighs three-pointers as more valuable than shots inside the arc), the highest for a major program since the KenPom era started, back in 2002. The Wildcats also rank among the top teams in college hoops in offensive turnover margin. That combination—shoot well, don’t give possessions away—wins national titles.
They’ll have to contend with Kansas, the tournament’s third-overall seed and one of the deeper teams in college basketball. The Jayhawks needed overtime to top Duke after Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen missed a shot to win that game in regulation. Kansas got 32 points from sophomore guard Malik Newman and made 13 3-pointers against Duke’s zone. The Jayhawks are one of the few teams that can match Villanova’s shooting ability and talent. That game may come down to which team turns the ball over the least.
On the other side of the bracket, Loyola-Chicago is the most intriguing team remaining—and not just because of Sister Jean. After the Ramblers won their Elite 8 contest on Saturday over Kansas State, ESPN flashed a graphic on SportsCenter that showed that of more 17 million brackets that had been filled out, only 83,292 had picked Loyola-Chicago to advance that far. Best questions there are: Who are those people? And were they drunk? Even Sister Jean had her school losing in the Sweet 16. “Keeping breaking (my bracket),” she told the players.
The Ramblers are more than a good story, though. They haven’t lost since January and have won 32 games. They held their NCAA foes—Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and K-State—under 70 points in all four wins. They also spread the floor with shooters (five players average double figures), which they will need against the Wolverines, who possess the best defense remaining in the tournament. Shooters like Donte Ingram, who knocked down a deep triple at the buzzer to topple Miami in Loyola-Chicago’s opening NCAA win. The Ramblers also ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency, so they’re balanced, too. Should they beat Michigan and advance to the title game it would be fair to categorize that triumph as an upset. But not a big one.
Michigan, winners of 13 straight and the Big Ten tournament, is also playing its best basketball, is also balanced and it ranked as high as third in defensive efficiency this season. Sometimes the Wolverines feature Moritz Wagner, their lumbering German forward. Other times, it’s Charles Matthews, their sharpshooting guard who transferred from Kentucky. He powered the Wolverines past Florida State in the Elite 8 in Los Angeles, then claimed to not know who Sister Jean is. He also gathered his teammates after a practice before their first NCAA tournament game against Montana. “Everybody back in here,” he told the Michigan players, gathering them for a huddle. “We’re going to win the whole thing,” he then announced.
This Michigan unit plays defense the way its football teams once played D. For the tournament, they’re holding teams to 37.7 percent shooting. Defense is at once the Wolverines identity and calling card. That makes them particularly dangerous against a team like Loyola-Chicago that doesn’t have a go-to scorer. But it would be harder for the Wolverines to shut down, say, Brunson and Bridges in the title game. Should Loyola-Chicago advance instead, the Ramblers would have the opportunity to become the lowest seed ever to win an NCAA tournament title. The previous low seed was Villanova, in 1985, as a No. 8. What a story that would be.
Before coach Leonard Hamilton grumbled his way through a post-game interview on national TV over how he handled (or failed to handle) the final 90 seconds of his team’s loss to Michigan, I asked him what this tournament meant for the sport he has devoted his life to. Was it needed more now than ever? Hamilton is 69 years old, and his face twisted into a knowing smirk. We had spent the five minutes previous discussing his corn pudding and his gospel label. This was not that. He grunted.
“Rough year for what now?” he asked.
Well, the FBI investigation, all that stuff, etc., he was told. “But see, when I think about you got 7,000 kids playing college basketball, and then we seem to be putting all our emphasis on let’s say maybe 10,” he said. “So my point being that yes, college basketball has taken a hit, yes, from a media standpoint. But there are so many outstanding wonderful great things going on because basketball, which you guys never talk about.”
So, I asked, we’re looking at this through the wrong lens? “I’m not saying you got the wrong lens,” he said. “I’m saying your lens should be wider. Make sense?”
In March, as the Final Four approached and the focus returned to basketball, it did make sense. That’s not to say the sport doesn’t need changing, or that the cesspool of college basketball recruiting suddenly vanished when the FBI started snooping around. It’s just to say that the NCAA tournament is the NCAA tournament and in March college basketball is never more interesting or relevant. That holds true again this year. That will hold true in San Antonio next week.