The 2018 Final Four has everything: The Big East champ. The Big 12 champ. The Big Ten champ. Two No. 1 seeds. Three of the top seven teams in the final poll of the regular season. And, potentially, the greatest Cinderella story the NCAA tournament has ever seen. All that’s left to do is make some predictions.
No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago
Saturday, 6:09 p.m. ET, TBS
As I detailed in my matchup preview earlier this week, Michigan and Loyola are quite similar stylistically. These are two teams that are efficient on offense, but truly special on the defensive end of the floor. Michigan can go on explosive runs from behind the arc like few teams in the country, but defense is this team’s bread and butter. Loyola deserves a ton of credit for its active offense that treats ball movement almost as a vice, resulting in the country’s fifth best effective field goal percentage, but it also finds its foundation in its defense. Both defenses force long possessions—with which neither will be uncomfortable offensively—clean up the glass and do a good job extending beyond the three-point line, forcing would-be shooters to drive toward help. When it suits them, both teams will turn defense into offense and push the pace, but this game is not going to turn into a track meet. That’s just not either team’s style.
Loyola is more ensemble cast than star-driven, but if you’re looking for one key player for the Ramblers, it’s junior point guard Clayton Custer. He leads the team in minutes (32.7) and points (13.2) per game, but it goes beyond those surface stats. The Ramblers are simply a different team when he’s off the floor, especially on the offensive end, where they too often stagnate without their point guard. In addition to having the deftest hand for running the offense, Custer is the guy the Ramblers want with the ball when the shot clock trickles inside 10 seconds. If Loyola’s dream run continues, it’s almost certain that Custer has a great game.
Despite the similarities, Michigan has a few big advantages in this game. The first is Mo Wagner. Put simply, Loyola doesn’t have any likely NBA players. Wagner will certainly find himself on an NBA court in the future, perhaps as soon as next season. He’s going to be a matchup nightmare for the Ramblers, even with their excellent defense. He’s too quick and versatile on the perimeter for Cameron Krutwig, and too big with too soft a touch around the hoop for either Donte Ingram or Aundre Jackson. The Ramblers will likely have to live with Wagner getting his on Saturday.
Another is the turnover battle. This game will likely be played in the 60s, with about as few possessions as you’ll realistically see in a modern college game. The fewer possessions there are, the more valuable each one is. Michigan does an excellent job protecting the ball, with the third-lowest turnover rate in the country. Loyola, for all its offensive efficiencies, can get sloppy at times, as it did in the first half of its Sweet 16 win over Nevada. Loyola ranks 219th in turnover rate, and we know what Michigan can do when it gets numbers going the other way, with players like Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman filling the wings. (If you don’t, queue up video from the Wolverines’ Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M.)
With all due respect to Porter Moser—who has done an incredible job building this Final Four team from the ground up—Michigan’s final big advantage is John Beilein. It’s not so much the disparity between the coaches, rather than the simple fact that Beilein is arguably the best coach in the country, and easily one of the few in the discussion. Give him a week to prepare for an opponent, especially one so similar to his own team, and that opponent is typically in for a long night.
This game may not hit a combined 130 points, but it won’t be a rock fight. The offensive efficiencies of both teams will prevent that. The Ramblers earned their trip to the Final Four and, after everything they have achieved, it won’t be a shock if they win the national championship. Still, they have the longest odds of the four for a reason and a big part of that is the team they will meet in the semifinals. No matter what happens, Loyola is the story of the 2018 NCAA tournament. The fairytale will come to an end on Saturday.
PREDICTION: Michigan 68, Loyola 60
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas
Saturday, 8:49 p.m. ET, TBS
If games played in the 60s aren’t your thing, the Final Four nightcap will be your palate cleanser. Villanova and Kansas are two of the best offensive teams in the country, no matter how you want to measure it. Kenpom.com adjusted offensive efficiency? Villanova is first, Kansas is fifth. Effective field goal percentage? Villanova is second, Kansas is sixth. Points per game? Villanova is first and, among power conference teams, Kansas is 14th. Field goal percentage? Villanova is fifth, Kansas is ninth. In other words, these two teams can—and will—put the ball in the basket. A lot.
This may sound too simplistic, and it’s certainly easier said than done, but Villanova must find a way to run Kansas’s shooters off the three-point line. Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman all shoot at least 40.3% from distance, and it’s not thanks to small sample size. The three have attempted 263, 255 and 200 shots, respectively, from behind the arc. When two of them get going, Kansas is awfully tough to beat. When all three do, it’s nearly impossible to upend the Jayhawks.
Kansas is a much different—and not nearly as dangerous—team when Graham, Mykhauilik and Newman aren’t firing from distance. Neither Graham nor Mykhailiuk are terribly threatening players when they put the ball on the deck. Newman can make things happen in the paint, and Lagerald Vick is likely the team’s best player at attacking the hoop, but Villanova will live with Newman and Vick drives if that’s the trade-off for quieting the Jayhawks’ three-point prowess. Udoka Azubuike can get easy buckets, evidenced by his country-leading 77.2% field goal percentage on two-pointers, but the day Kansas runs its offense through its sophomore center is likely the day it gets sent packing.
Therein lies Villanova’s greatest advantage. The Wildcats may not be quite as dangerous as the Jayhawks from three-point land, but they can also get it going, ranking 15th in the country with a 40% success rate from behind the arc. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman all connected on at least 41.4% off their three-point attempts, while Donte DiVincenzo and Phil Booth are both just shy of 40%. The difference, however, is that Villanova doesn’t need to live by the three the way Kansas does. Brunson and Bridges—Villanova’s two best players and the two that handle the ball the most—can both create for themselves and their teammates inside the arc. Brunson’s two-point field goal percentage is 60.4%, while Bridges’ is 58.8%. DiVincenzo, meanwhile, is more comfortable attacking the rim, making 57.1% of his two-point attempts while dishing out 3.5 assists per game as an off-ball guard. Villanova’s offense is more diverse than Kansas’s, and that could be the difference maker. At the very least, it’s reason enough for the Wildcats to be the rightful favorite in this matchup.
This, too, should be a great game. I don’t think we’re going to get stuck with one of those Final Four blowouts this year. We should be so lucky to get a Final Four matchup featuring two teams like these. Villanova and Kansas both have a wealth of individual talent, yet have somehow found a way to make the whole greater than the sum of their impressive parts. Whoever wins will be the favorite in the National Championship game, no matter who comes out on top in Michigan-Loyola. Ultimately, Villanova’s A-game is the country’s best. That will show on Saturday night.
PREDICTION: Villanova 87, Kansas 84