This NCAA tournament did not play out the way even the most adventurous bracket-fillers expected it to, but only one of the four teams still alive looks out of place. That team is No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago, a Missouri Valley Conference outfit with a quotable nonagenarian chaplain whose fame far outstrips that of any of the players on the Ramblers’ roster. Loyola-Chicago has a real shot to win the national championship, but to do that, it will first need to get through one of the trendiest pre-tourney picks among non-No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four (Michigan), and then beat the winner of a game between two No. 1 seeds (Villanova and Kansas). That’s not an easy path.
But is it the most difficult? Below is a ranking of all four squads based on their chances of winning it all.
The best team in college basketball cutting down the nets would feel out of sync with the chaotic nature of these NCAAs. The abundance of games that have broken in unanticipated ways has primed us for a wild Final Four. It’s certainly possible that the national semifinals could buck expectations, but the safe play is to bet on Villanova rolling to its second title in three years.
Though the Wildcats’ capacity to bury opponents in a hail of three-point shots may be keeping Kansas head coach Bill Self up at night, their four previous games in the tourney attest to their strength on the other end of the court. Only one of Villanova’s opponents scored more than one point per possession, and that opponent, No. 5-seeded West Virginia, had the No. 11 offense in Division I, according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metric.
The Wildcats are showing they can win high-leverage games even when their shots aren’t falling. That’s particularly important considering the squad Villanova will meet on Saturday night, fellow No. 1 seed Kansas, takes and makes enough threes to keep up with the Wildcats on the scoreboard. The Jayhawks’ four-guard attack is a chore to contain under any circumstance, and a recent surge by former five-star recruit/ace bucket-getter Malik Newman has injected it with a dynamism it lacked for long stretches of this season.
In lottery-bound junior wing Mikal Bridges, Villanova has a super-switchable stopper to check Newman or a different Kansas player who happens to go off for a big scoring night. And in junior point guard Jalen Brunson, it has a sure-handed floor general with deep range on his jumper and a mean post game that could cause problems for Kansas’s porous defense.
This matchup should test Villanova far more than any it has played to reach this point, but it’s ready for it. It also represents a bigger hurdle for the Wildcats than the championship game.
The Wolverines are here mostly because they are defending far more effectively than they have at any previous time since head coach John Beilein left West Virginia to take over the program in 2007. They currently rank fourth in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency—65 spots higher than last season and 33 spots higher than their highest previous rank under Beilein (2011, 2013)—and have held the four teams they’ve faced in the tourney so far to an average of 0.88 points per possession, which would rank third if sustained over the entire season.
Another major reason that Michigan is here is the smooth path that didn’t feature a team seeded higher than sixth. Making due allowance for the possibility that Loyola-Chicago could do what three previous No. 11 seeds who advanced out of their respective regions (1986 LSU, 2006 George Mason, 2011 Virginia Commonwealth) could not and reach the title game, this is a great draw for the Wolverines, and they’re in good position to take advantage of it by moving on to the national final five years after their last trip.
With the exception of its Sweet 16 beatdown of Texas A&M, Michigan has not shot the ball well from beyond the arc in the NCAAs, sinking a fourth of its attempts in three other tourney games—11.1 percentage points worse than its season-long make rate. Whether or not that continues against the Ramblers, the Wolverines are comfortable grinding out a close win in a slow, low-scoring slog. (They rank 326th out of 351 Division I squads in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo.)
Be that as it may, given Loyola-Chicago’s penchant for late heroics, Michigan is best off putting this game away with plenty of time to spare before the final buzzer. The Wolverines are unbeaten since a Feb. 6 loss at Northwestern. If they do take an L between now and April 3, it will likely happen against Villanova or Kansas.
The Jayhawks’ championship chances aren’t as high as Michigan’s chiefly because of the game they need to win just to have a shot to play for the championship. Put the Wolverines and Kansas on a neutral court right now, and the resulting battle between an efficient, point-producing engine and a well-drilled, points-limiting straightjacket might well come down to the final possession.
That could be the case for the Jayhawks against Villanova, too. After all, Kansas is less than a week removed from taking out the team widely considered to have had a higher ceiling than any other in the NCAAs, No. 2-seeded Duke. Plus, Newman has been scorching nets dating back to the start of the Big 12 tournament, and there’s little reason to doubt that he’ll continue doing so. Over the Jayhawks’ last seven games, the Mississippi State transfer is averaging 22.7 points while knocking down his 7.3 three-point attempts per game at a 54.9% clip.
Newman’s scoring has kept Kansas on solid ground even as its best player, senior point guard Devonte’ Graham, is enduring a rare cold spell. In the four tourney games Kansas won to reach the Final Four, Graham shot 35.7% from inside the three-point arc and 32% from beyond it. There’s a large body of evidence pointing to a high likelihood that Graham can and will turn things around against the Wildcats. With Graham hitting shots at the rate he has for most of the season, Newman continuing to preoccupy defenders off the ball, and both senior wing Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and junior wing Lagerald Vick spacing the floor with their own perimeter marksmanship, Kansas is definitely capable of upending Villanova in a heavyweight matchup that feels better suited for Monday night than Saturday night.
The next step would be simpler for the Jayhawks regardless of the outcome of the Michigan-Loyola-Chicago semi. That’s not to suggest that neither the Wolverines nor the Ramblers would give Kansas a game. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that by beating the Wildcats, Kansas would remove the biggest obstacle for Bill Self claiming his second title with a roster devoid of frontcourt depth and top-end NBA prospects.
The most compelling reason to believe in the Ramblers is not quantifiable. It’s been clear since their win in the first round over No. 6 seed Miami that either 1) a few enterprising Gryffindor students are putting off potions class in favor of holing up in a Hogwarts dorm to cast spells on Loyola-Chicago’s opponents in crunch time; or 2) Sister Jean has persuaded the basketball gods to intervene on the Ramblers’ behalf.
Loyola-Chicago upset Miami thanks to a deep three at the buzzer from senior wing Donte Ingram. Then it knocked out No. 3 seed Tennessee after redshirt junior guard Clayton Custer connected on a pull-up two-point jumper inside the final five seconds. Then it downed No. 7 seed Nevada after junior guard Marques Townes drained a corner three with about six seconds left. If one of those shots clanks off the rim, the Ramblers are, in all likelihood, sitting at home watching a different team from the South Region bask in the national spotlight.
Michigan could bring Loyola-Chicago’s glorious ride to an abrupt halt by building up enough of a lead to eliminate the possibility of another dramatic winner, but if the Ramblers can keep things close late, recent history suggests they’re going to find a way to send the Wolverines back to Ann Arbor earlier than they’d like. Loyola-Chicago has defied doubters who pegged it for an early tourney dismissal because of its lack of top-end recruits and/or conference affiliation, and surely there are a lot of folks who’ll use one or both of those facts to justify picking Michigan in this game.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the Ramblers’ ability to match high-major powers blow-for-blow on college basketball’s biggest stage is not a huge mystery. They have lost only twice this season with Custer, their leading scorer and assister, in the lineup. They won at then-No. 5 Florida in early December. They are one of the most accurate shooting teams in the country, ranking fifth in effective field goal percentage, which takes into account the added value of threes. And they check in 19th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency.
Loyola Chicago is here because it’s really good. It just probably isn’t quite good enough to keep its season alive beyond Saturday night.