A little over two weeks ago 68 teams set off on this wild ride known as the NCAA Tournament with hopes of being the last team left standing when the confetti falls and one shinning moments begins to play. Today four teams hopes remain in tact, the Loyola Ramblers, the Michigan Wolverines, the Villanova Wildcats and the Kansas Jayhawks. Just like everyone (and not only 550 people out of 17 million) correctly predicted before this all began. At this point no matter the road each team took to get here, as crazy as it sounds everyone is only two wins away from walking away champions. For that reason anything and everything is possible. So let’s dive into why every team will (and won’t) become NCAA Champions.
The Road Here: Jay Wright’s Wildcats have taken care of business in their efficient route to the final four. Dispatching Radford, Alabama, West Virginia and Texas Tech in short order without as much as hiccup has been a testament to Villanova’s talent as opposed to anything negative about their competition.
Winners Because: Depth
In the first round Villanova had six players score in double figures, then the next two rounds featured extraordinary performances from Mikal Bridges (23 points) and Jalen Brunson (27 points) before having five players score in double figures in their Elite Eight game. The Wildcats can get points from multiple people and places making them incredibly hard to game plan against. The points are going to come from somewhere and you’d be better off trying to keep up instead of trying to stop this explosive offense.
Losers Because: Poor 3 Point Shooting Night
Three of the Wildcats four losses this year have come when their team has shot 30% or lower from behind the arc as opposed to their season average of 40%. The ability to space the floor with three point shooting helps open up driving and passing lanes for the rest of their offense to flourish. If Villanova can’t get it done from downtown they could be in trouble.
Loyola University Chicago Ramblers
The Road Here: The ying to Villanova’s yang, no one has had a crazier road to the Final Four than Sister Jeans Ramblers. After winning their first three games by a total of four points Loyola shocked the nation even more (if that was possible) by running Kansas State out of the building to punch their ticket to the 3rd weekend of this madness.
Winners because: Offensive Efficiency
What has impressed watching this Cinderella continue to dance has been Loyola’s maturity and decision making at the offensive end. Even though a few games have come down to a ball bouncing just the right way by nothing short of the grace of God, the Ramblers have been able to stay in their games due to their offensive sets. A series of backdoor cuts and a dedication to making the extra pass will need to continue for Loyola to hang with the blue bloods of College Basketball.
Losers because: Length and Athleticism
All good things must come to and end and Loyola’s magical run may come up short of the gold when they are unable to keep up with the raw athleticism of the other three teams left in the tournament. Everything becomes harder when your opponent is bigger, taller and longer than you are.
The Road Here: Kansas Coach Bill Self put his recent March madness demons behind him em route to an Elite Eight matchup with the Duke Blue Devils. In a game that smelled, felt and looked like a National Championship game the Jayhawks prevailed a knockdown drag out fight to punch their ticket to the Final Four.
Winners Because: 3 Point Shooting
The reason Kansas finds them self in the Final Four over Duke was the Jayhawks three point shooting. Kansas plays four guards around a forward letting them chuck up as many downtime bombs as they please. When these shots are falling it opens up driving lanes to the basket and everything is hunky dory. Kansas and Villanova will both be hoisting them up from downtime early and often in their game and whoever blinks first will exit early.
Losers Because: Defense Wins Championship
Kansas wants a track meet. They are 18-2 in their last 20 games when they score 80 points or more as opposed to being 3-3 when they have scored 70 points or less. If the Jayhawk offense stalls running up against a stalwart defense Bill Self will walk away championship-less again.
The Road Here: Your Big Ten Tournament Champions snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when freshman Jordan Poole (not to be confused with Oscar winning director Jordan Peele) hit an absurd buzzer beater to send the Wolverines to the Sweet Sixteen. Michigan would go on to blowout Texas A&M before holding on late over Florida State to secure their seat in the Final Four.
Winners Because: Moritz Wagner
Michigan’s success this year is in large part to their Junior German sensation. Wagner presents a matchup problem across the board for opposing defenses as the 6-10 forward can score inside or shoot the three. Michigan heavily utilizes this versatility in their offense with high pick and roll action that gives Wagner plenty of three point shots at the top of the key.
Losers Because: Free Throws
Michigan in 321st in the nation if free throw percentage at 62%. Not only is that objectively bad but it means that any late lead the Wolverines may have is in jeopardy if they can’t make their free throw shots.