Michigan seeks its first national title in 29 years; Loyola's first in 55
All four participants in this year’s Final Four boast a national championship, the first time that was the case since 2012. But while the two teams playing in Saturday's late semifinal, Kansas and Villanova, each have a title in the past decade — with Kansas' last coming at the Alamodome, site of this year's Final Four — the first semifinal features two programs looking to take a step closer to ending lengthy national championship droughts.
Michigan is in its fourth Final Four since Glen Rice, Loy Vaught, Terry Mills and Rumeal Robinson paced the Wolverines to the 1989 national championship under newly christened head coach, Steve Fisher. This is the second Final Four run for current Michigan head coach John Beilein, and perhaps the best coaching job of his career. Whereas the 2012-13 Wolverines featured highly coveted NBA prospects Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., the 2017-18 Michigan lineup is one of overachievers.
The Wolverines have that in common with Loyola-Chicago, but little else. Whereas the Michigan athletic department is awash in lucrative TV contracts and carries the banner for the Jordan Brand, the Ramblers represent the hopes of all mid-major conference programs without Power 5 football revenue to support them.
The Missouri Valley Conference champions are the Cinderella story of this NCAA Tournament, and just two wins away from winning the program's second national championship. This Final Four trip is Loyola's first since winning the 1963 title.
Final Four: No. 11 Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers (32-5) vs. No. 3 Michigan Wolverines (32-7)
Time: 6:09 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: Alamodome (San Antonio)
Keys for Loyola (Chicago)
In wins over Miami, Tennessee and Nevada — totaling just four points — Loyola had little margin for error. Had the Ramblers' outstanding shooting percentages of at least 53 percent from inside the 3-point arc, and 39 beyond it, dipped in one of those games, Cinderella's glass slipper goes missing and Porter Moser's crew's riding a pumpkin back to Chicago.
Against Kansas State, however, the full capacity of Loyola's greatness showed for the entire nation to witness. The Ramblers were excellent on defense, as they have been all season (they rank No. 19 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com), but added a level of offensive firepower not often seen with their methodical approach. Loyola's 78 points marked the team's most since hitting for 80 on Valentine's night.
For Loyola to score so effectively on a quality defensive opponent (K-State finished the season with a top-25 adjusted efficiency defense) while maintaining a high level of its own defensive intensity bodes well for the Michigan matchup. The Wolverines have been outstanding defensively all season long, ranking No. 4 in adjusted efficiency. But if Loyola can attack Michigan's defense with long possessions that result in clean looks at the basket, that forces the Wolverines to keep pace; not easily done against the Ramblers’ defense.
When pulled into a slower tempo game, Michigan's escaped on a buzzer-beater once in this Tournament, and survived against Florida State because of the Seminoles' inability to run effective offense. Loyola plays a less frenetic style than Florida State, so keeping Michigan's offense in check — starting with shutting off dribble-drive lanes for Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Zavier Simpson — allows the Ramblers to dictate pace.
Keys for Michigan
Thus far in the NCAA Tournament, no opponent has been able to establish tempo or exploit size mismatches against Loyola. Michigan has the ability to do both — and must to advance to the national championship game.
Michigan's advantages begin with 6-foot-11 Mortiz Wagner, the sharp-shooting, trash-talking German forward. Loyola counters with Cameron Krutwig, but Ramblers coach Porter Moser has no other sizable options if Wagner can draw Krutwig into foul trouble. Likewise, John Beilein has the option of throwing the versatile Wagner on the floor with similarly skilled, 6-foot-8 Duncan Robinson; or the classic big man, 7-foot-1 Jon Teske.
Charles Matthews has come alive as the leading perimeter scoring threat for Michigan during this March run, but the outstanding ball-handling of Simpson sets the table. Matthews is likely to draw Loyola's excellent on-ball defender Donte Ingram. If Simpson can draw Ingram away by beating his man off the dribble, looks for Matthews to be rewarded on cuts.
By attacking the rim and not settling for 3-pointers, Michigan can establish the offensive pace. On the defensive end, the Wolverines must shut down Loyola's effective back cuts and turn would-be passing lanes into spots for takeaways. Some fast-break points can take the Ramblers out of their comfort zone.
Both Michigan and Loyola needed some good fortune to reach the Final Four, each winning games on buzzer-beaters. However, with excellent coaching and players committed to great defense and unselfish offense, each made their own good fortune.
Luck will have nothing to do with Saturday's semifinal. The team that can more effectively execute the game plan that brought them to San Antonio will move onto Monday. Beilein has the advantage, having coached to this point previously in his career. However, Moser has had the answer for every challenger along the way thus far, including three different coaches with Final Four experience (Jim Larranaga, Rick Barnes and Bruce Weber).
Loyola's tremendous shooting should make the difference in a game with two of this season's best defenses. Aundre Jackson, Donte Ingram, Clayton Custer and Marques Townes all have the ability to carry the load, but none need to pull too much of it to give the Ramblers a chance to win.
Prediction: Loyola-Chicago 60, Michigan 58