FINAL FOUR PREDICTIONS
No one expected this. It’s a Final Four mix of a pair of No. 1 seeds, a No. 3 that may be the hottest team in the nation, and a true Cinderella with a character that has become a national phenomenon. Kansas, Villanova, Michigan, and a No. 11 Loyola-Chicago make up this year’s Final Four and each has a chance to walk away from San Antonio next weekend as the national champion.
LOYOLA vs. MICHIGAN
The most intriguing Final Four entrant since George Mason, 11th-seeded Loyola won its first three tournament games by a total of four points and then dominated Kansas State in a regional final to advance to the school’s second Final Four. The Ramblers were the 1963 national champions led by consensus first team All-American Jerry Harkness. This time around, it’s the Ramblers’ backcourt of Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer who have done everything from play outstanding defense to drain 3-pointers in Loyola’s dream run to the Final Four.
The Ramblers (32-5) will face what could be the hottest team in the nation in Michigan in one semifinal on Saturday. The Wolverines are riding a 13-game winning streak and are playing the best defense of the four remaining tournament teams. In their regional final win over Florida State, Michigan held the Seminoles to just 31.4 percent shooting contesting 90 percent of Florida State’s shots. They are the only Final Four team that ranks in the Top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency and it is that defense that could propel the Wolverines to a shot at the national title.
Head coach John Bielien and the Wolverines are no stranger to the Final Four or the championship game. It was just five years ago that Bielien and Michigan faced off with Louisville in the title game. What Bielien and the Wolverines need though is for their offense to be more consistent. In the regional final win over Florida State, Michigan shot just 4-of-22 from 3-point range. In their Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M, the Wolverines hit 60 percent of their 3s. That is the type of effort Michigan will need to defeat Loyola.
In the end, there is a reason why No. 11 seeds do not win national championships. At this stage of the tournament, talent takes over and while Loyola is certainly talented Michigan holds a serious talent advantage. Loyola is not like the Butler team that took on Duke in the national title game in 2010. That Butler team had a lottery pick in Gordon Hayward and another second-round pick in Shelvin Mack. The Ramblers’ roster does not compare.
PREDICTION: Michigan 78, Loyola 63
VILLANOVA vs. KANSAS
Two blueblood programs meet in the other semifinal as Villanova takes on Kansas. The preseason No. 2 and No. 4 teams in the nation will play for the chance at winning another national championship. The Wildcats and head coach Jay Wright won the title just two years ago while Bill Self and Kansas are a decade (2008) removed from their last championship. The Wildcats-Jayhawks matchup might produce another gem like the Kansas-Duke Midwest Regional final, a game won by Kansas, 85-81, in overtime.
Villanova (34-4) is the nation’s leading scoring team but got to the Final Four with a 71-59 defensive effort over Texas Tech. The Wildcats are one of the nation’s best shooting teams with six players hitting 39 percent or more of their 3-point attempts. Guard Jalen Brunson was the Big East Player of the Year and is a candidate for the Naismith Award which goes to the nation’s best player. Brunson averages 19.2 points per game and is a likely first-round draft pick in this summer’s NBA draft.
Brunson is not the Wildcats only scorer though. Six-foot-six Mikal Bridges averages 17.8 points a game and is as good a two-way guard in the country. Bridges is a likely lottery pick in the upcoming draft. Brunson, Bridges, and role players Donte DiVincenzo (12.9 ppg) and Phil Booth (10.3) are the reasons why Villanova is the highest scoring team in the nation (86.6 ppg). Kansas will have a tough time containing the Wildcats’ scorers.
That said, the Jayhawks (31-7) have the type of team that can hang with Villanova. They have the Big 12 Player of the Year in Devonte Graham (17.2 ppg, 7.3 apg) who is also a Naismith Award candidate, but in the Jayhawks’ run through the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, Malik Newman (14.0 ppg) has been the team’s leading scorer in six of seven games. Newman had 32 in the win over Duke and he has made 55 percent of his 3-point attempts during that seven-game stretch.
The key for Kansas might be 7-footer Udoka Azubuike. He helped to slow down the dangerous Duke frontcourt but spent a good portion of the game in foul trouble and eventually fouled out. In fact, Azubuike has fouled out of the Jayhawks’ past two games and has not played more than 25 minutes in any tourney game thus far. The Kansas big man will have to stay out of foul trouble and probably make some free throws – he’s only a 41 percent free throw shooter – down the stretch.
This could be the best game of the entire tournament. Experience, talent, and depth against experience, talent, and depth. In the end, the Wildcats have yet to lose on a neutral floor this season.
PREDICTION: Villanova 88, Kansas 87
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March Madness Final Four Predictions