It seems like every year, a host of analysts, fans, and other observers claim that the NCAA Tournament looks “chalky.” They point to bad matchups and superteams stopping any potential Cinderella stories, along with the fulfillment of enticing storylines such as Duke’s heralded freshmen making a run, or Virginia’s packline defense smothering opponents en route to the Promised Land.
And every year, college basketball makes us look stupid.
The Final Four is set, and Duke and Virginia are conspicuously absent from the party. The first matchup will be between 3-seed Michigan (West Region) and 11-seed Loyola-Chicago (South Region), and the second semifinal matchup features two one-seeds: Villanova (East Region) and Kansas (Midwest).
While the second game features two heavy-weights whose presence should be of little surprise, the first tilt on Saturday tells a story of a popular Dark Horse pick, the Michigan Wolverines, versus everyone’s March darling, the Loyola Ramblers. Will the Wolverines make it back to the final Monday night, with a chance to avenge Trey Burke’s loss to [redacted]in 2013? Or will the Ramblers harness the power of Sister Jean one more time?
Both Michigan and Loyola needed last-minute shots to make it San Antonio. The Wolverines advanced to the Sweet 16 on a buzzer-beating prayer from Jordan Poole against 6-seed Houston. Meanwhile, the Ramblers won their first round game against 6-seed Miami on a buzzer-beater, prevailed against 3-seed Tennessee in the second round on a go-ahead shot, aided by a “shooter’s roll,” and defeated 7-seed Nevada in the Sweet 16 thanks to a big three with under 10 seconds left. Therein lies the insanity of the tournament: Michigan and Loyola should have both gone home in the first weekend, but due to a combination of grit and luck they are among the four teams left dancing.
Michigan, which finished fourth in the Big Ten and won the Big Ten Tournament, has taken on a different identity from previous John Beilein-coached teams. Although the Wolverines largely run the same offense as in years past, a motion-based and perimeter-focused attack, they do not score with the same efficiency as traditional Michigan squads. They have slipped to 30th in overall adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. This dip can partly be attributed to abysmal free throw shooting, as the Wolverines shoot just 66 percent from the charity stripe, 326th in the country, but the team also shoots a pedestrian 36 percent from the three-point line. Junior forward Moe Wagner leads the Michigan offense with 14.3 points per game; the 6-11 German is a tough matchup, as he is a threat from deep anda proficient finisher around the rim.
Where Michigan has taken a leap, however, is its sterling defense. While the 2017 team that made the Sweet 16 ranked 69th in adjusted defensive efficiency, the 2018 Wolverines rank 4th in that measure. In this year’s NCAA Tournament, Michigan has relied on defense to win games, holding three of its four opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field.
Loyola Chicago, on the other hand, is riding a magical run that can only be stopped by a stout, patient defense. The Ramblers play at a slow, methodical pace on offense, using a bevy of ball screens on each possession to draw out the defense, which creates room for backdoor cuts, rim runs and open shots. Porter Moser’s team is experienced, poised, and deadly from behind the arc: the Ramblers shoot 40.2 percent from three-point range, in addition to converting 56.8 percent of their two-point field goals. Senior guard Clayton Custer leads the Ramblers’ vaunted and balanced attack, which features five double-digit scorers.
The Ramblers’ defense is not too shabby either: Loyola’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 19th nationally, and although the Ramblers are smaller than most of their opponents, they manage to defend without fouling.
Michigan, in sum, is a taller, slightly more athletic version of Loyola with some key matchup advantages that will be tough to handle. In particular, it will be interesting to see how the Ramblers contain Wagner, who drags out opposing bigs and creates space for his guards to operate. Neither team prioritizes the offensive glass, but second chances off of long misses (from three-pointers) may feature prominently in this game.
Don’t let the plodding pace of this one fool you; both teams are offensive juggernauts and will look to make the most of every opportunity the opposing defense gives them. Michigan has had a troubling tendency to come out of the gate slow: with the exception of its Sweet 16 matchup against Texas A&M, the Wolverines have fallen behind early in all of their tournament games. Michigan will find itself in one of its offensive ruts and struggle to recover. In a nail-biting few minutes, the Wolverines will come back to take the lead, before Porter Moser & co. show off yet another display of “onions!” en route to reaching the title game. The Ramblers ramble on to the final Monday night of the season.
Score prediction: Loyola 68, Michigan 62.