Monthly Archives: March 2018

Final Four 2018: Michigan vs LoyolaChicago Live Stream, start time, date, picks

Third-seed Michigan takes on 11-seed Loyola-Chicago in the 2018 NCAA Tournament Final Four on Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET. Michigan opened as a three-point favorite, but the line quickly moved to 5.5. The over-under, or total number of points Vegas thinks will be scored, is 129.5, up one from the opening line.

Before picking a side in this huge March Madness 2018 game, you need to see what the SportsLine Projection Model is saying. The advanced computer model enters the Final Four on an astonishing 8-1 run on 2018 NCAA Tournament picks.

It’s also been crushing its selections on Michigan, going 4-0 in the NCAA Tournament on point-spread picks in games involving the Wolverines. Anybody following the model is way, way up.

Now the computer has simulated Loyola-Chicago vs. Michigan 10,000 times and come up with some surprising results.

We can tell you it’s calling for 119 points to be scored, clearing the under with 10.5 to spare. And it also has a strong pick for one side of the spread, saying it hits in almost 60 percent of simulations. You can get that pick only over at SportsLine.

The model has taken into account Loyola’s stunning run through the NCAA Tournament that has the Ramblers (32-5) in the Final Four for the first time since 1963, becoming just the fourth 11-seed ever to make it this far.

They survived three nail-biting matchups to open the tournament before putting together a dominant 78-62 win over Kansas State in the Elite Eight. Loyola’s defense hasn’t given up more than 68 points in any NCAA Tournament game and now has the look of a legitimate title contender, flanked by chaplain Sister Jean.

But standing in the way of this Cinderella story is Michigan — a team that has also experienced plenty of madness this March.

The Wolverines (32-7) needed a clutch buzzer-beater to survive Houston in the second round. They then rolled through Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, but had to hold off a late charge from Florida State in the Elite Eight to advance to San Antonio.

They also rely on a tough defense that gives up an average of just 63.1 points and held FSU to 54. Offensively, 6-foot-11 forward Moritz Wagner is the player to watch; he’s averaged 15 points over the last three contests.

Both squads have been money against the spread this season, with Michigan going 22-13 and Loyola posting a 24-9 mark.

Final Four 2018: Villanova vs Kansas Live Stream, start time, date

It took a career-high 32 points from Malik Newman along with an overtime period, but the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seed, Kansas, is advancing to the Final Four where it will meet Villanova, the No. 1 seed that emerged from the East Region.

While the Jayhawks have been battling — their last three games were decided by four points — Villanova has been snoozing. The Wildcats have yet to win by fewer than 12 points in the NCAA Tournament, and have now gone more than a month since last taking a tally in the loss column.

That really tells the story of these teams and their trajectory all season: Villanova has been absolutely dominant for significant stretches this season. Kansas, on the other hand, lost three times at home this season. That’s as many as KU has lost at Allen Fieldhouse since the 1998 season. And yet, KU won the league outright by flashing its resiliency on the road.

Now we’ll soon learn if that same resiliency that got Kansas to the Final Four will be enough to give Bill Self his second title, or if Jay Wright and Villanova can win its second in three seasons.

Viewing Information

  • Location: Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas
  • When: Saturday, March 31 at 8:49 p.m. ET
  • TV: TBS
  • Stream: March Madness Live
  • Follow: CBS Sports App

NCAA™ Final Four 2018: Kansas vs Villanova matchup, pick ® predictions

In the glorious history of the NCAA Tournament as conceived by Hall of Famer Dave Gavitt – with the 64-team bracket that turned this event into a phenomenon – there have been 68 semifinal games played at the Final Four.

Kansas vs. Villanova will be only the 12th in all that time to be contested by two No. 1 seeds.

So what we’ll get when the Jayhawks and Wildcats take the floor at the Alamodome is a rare treat: a game between two teams that have excelled throughout the season. Each had its momentary lapses, and each has surged through March with three consecutive conference tournament victories, and four more in the tournament that matters most.

Final Four matchup:

Kansas vs Villanova

How to watch

The Final Four matchup between Kansas and Villanova will tip at 8:49 p.m. ET. It will air on TBS and can be live-streamed on NCAA(dot)com or the March Madness Live app.

No. 1 Kansas

Coach: Bill Self, 3 Final Fours, 1 NCAA championship
Overall record: 31-7
Scoring leader: Devonte’ Graham, 17.2 ppg
Rebounding leader: Udoka Azubuike, 7.1 rpg
Assists leader: Devonte’ Graham, 7.3 apg
Famous non-athlete alum: Actor Don Johnson

No. 1 Villanova

Coach: Jay Wright, 3 Final Fours, 1 NCAA championship
Overall record: 34-4
Scoring leader: Jalen Brunson, 19.2, ppg
Rebounding leader: Omari Spellman, 7.8 rpg
Assists leader: Jalen Brunson, 4.6 apg
Famous non-athlete alum: Playwright David Rabe

Best individual matchup: Kansas C Udoka Azubuike vs. Villanova C Omari Spellman

It’d be so easy and so obvious to say the battle between All-American point guard Devonte’ Graham of Kansas and Sporting news Player of the Year Jalen Brunson is the one to watch. There is plenty of glamor there. But the game is more likely to be decided by how these two very different big men contend with one another. Azubuike may be the strongest player in Division I basketball, so overpowering that 118 of his 207 baskets this season were dunks. Those fuel a shooting percentage of .772 – 87 percentage points better than the No. 2 player in field goal accuracy. Spellman is a .446 3-point shooter with 62 makes on the season.

When Spellman encountered foul trouble early in Villanova’s second-round game against Alabama, it revealed how dangerously thin the Wildcats are at that position. Spellman has no choice but to be careful in defending the inside. The good news about guarding Azubuike is that if you let him catch it in his preferred space, he’s so overwhelming you might as well get out of the way and allow him to rip off the rim.
Kansas must decide how to contend with Spellman’s ability on the perimeter, and his ability to advance the basketball when given enough space. The Jayhawks believe Azubuike moves his feet well enough to cope with the challenge; he does well in ball screen defense. Few of KU’s Big 12 opponents featured a big man so adept away from the goal. Now, there’s a chance the Jayhawks could get two in three days, were they to win and face Michigan in the final.

Critical coaching decision

Villanova seems likely to be putting Azubuike into pick-and-rolls all evening. KU will have to decide how it wants to defend those situations. It seems unlikely KU would risk foul trouble by trapping. Would KU be bold enough to have him hang back and dare the Wildcats to shoot from deep? Hedge hard and risk foul trouble? Azubuike is the most important player on the floor because there’s no one else like him. KU can sub him out now with Silvio De Sousa, and he’s been terrific all month, but he’s so inexperienced the Jayhawks must be careful with how much work they ask him to .

Most eye-popping stat: 7

If Villanova converts seven 3-pointers at the Final Four – whether in the semifinal against Kansas or, if they’re fortunate, the semi and championship game – the Wildcats will set a new NCAA Division I record for 3-pointers made in a season. The old record was established in 2006-07 by VMI, which played an all-out, uptempo style and hit 442-of-1383 from long distance. That represented 38 percent of the baskets made by the Keydets. Villanova gets just about as much of its offense from long distance.

Get to know: Villanova redshirt junior guard Phil Booth

You should know him well already, because he ws the surprise hero of the 2016 NCAA championship game. When Villanova chose to abandon its customary offensive approach in the final against North Carolina and rely on isolations, it was Booth who best was able to exploit his matchup and wound up with 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field and 6-of-6 from the line. You have an excuse if you’ve forgotten, though, because Booth missed nearly all of the 2016-17 season with an injury, and he has been a quite role player for most of this season and all of this tournament. He also missed seven games at midseason with a broken hand. He still can deliver a scoring outburst when necessary and available; he scored 20 points in a big win over Gonzaga and 21 in the first of two victories over Xavier. But otherwise he functions as a connector and does his job beautifully.

The pick: Villanova

This has been the best team in college basketball from the start of the year, and though Kansas has closed the gap this ought to be another step forward for the Wildcats. Were this game played at the end of February rather than now, they would be an overwhelming choice to win. Kansas is a different team because of shooting guard Malik Newman’s surge. He is averaging 22.7 points in March tournament games, and that has made KU a different team to defend. There isn’t as much pressure on Graham to manufacture opportunities for himself. He can spend a lot of his time running the show. Villanova’s advantage isn’t huge, but its ability to keep the Jayhawks spread on defense should provide driving and shooting opportunities that give the Wildcats the advantage.

Loyola Chicago’s NCAA Final Four 2018 run: how an underdog restored a city’s basketball™ glory

There was a time when Chicago was synonymous with basketball excellence, a major point of civic pride. Michael Jordan and the Bulls of the 1990s ruled the city and inspired a generation of devout fans. As one of them myself, I loved every minute of the Bulls’ glory years, and spent countless hours in my driveway pretending to be Scottie Pippen tasked with hitting a last-second shot or Dennis Rodman snagging a tough rebound. Basketball gave me a sort of joy that I hadn’t known before, and it was all thanks to the Bulls’ dominance.

It felt like the winning would never stop, but one day it just … did. After clinching the team’s sixth championship in eight seasons, Jordan called it quits for the second time in 1999, abruptly ending the team’s dynasty and ushering in a new dark age for basketball fans across the city. We’d had no idea just how great we had it, and even less of an understanding of how bad it was about to get.

The following season, the team finished dead last in the Central Division, as they did for three more years. It wasn’t until the 2004-05 season that the Bulls returned to the playoffs, and even then, they were knocked out fairly easily in the first round. They reached the Eastern Conference finals during the 2010-11 season, inspiring hope of a new dynasty, only to be blown out by LeBron James’ Miami Heat in five games. Then Derrick Rose, a homegrown prodigy who emerged from Chicago’s South Side to become the youngest NBA Most Valuable Player in history, wrecked his knee the following season and was never the same, returning the city to a default state of post-Jordan malaise.

The truth is, simply, that there hasn’t been much basketball in Chicago worth getting excited about in nearly two decades. That extended to the college game: None of the four Division I schools within city limits – Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University, Chicago State and the University of Illinois at Chicago – had even reached the tournament in 14 years until the Ramblers made the field as an No11 seed earlier this month.

But that’s all changed dramatically over the past fortnight as the Catholic school on the city’s North Side has made an improbable run to the Final Four of this year’s NCAA tournament. Loyola last made the national semi-finals in 1963, winning the title when the tournament was a silhouette of the billion-dollar cultural event it’s since become. But it had been 33 years since they’d even earned an invite to Big Dance.

For Chicago fans, Loyola’s Cinderella run is a welcome chance to step out of the cold shadow of Jordan’s statue outside the United Center and once again feel what it means to be excited about local hoops. Looking around, you can’t miss it. The city is draped in the school’s maroon and gold colors, local bars are holding viewing parties, and campus bookstores are packed with fans ready to jump on the Loyola bandwagon. Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the team’s 98-year-old chaplain, has found herself elevated to national celebrity and treated as a sort of nonagenarian rock star. There’s a feeling of electricity buzzing through the city, a sense of early-spring joy, making it a positively delightful time to be a fan. To be sure, there’s a lot of pressure on the young Ramblers to make their city proud, but in Chicago, their age might just be their most valuable asset.

There’s not a single player on the Loyola squad old enough to remember the Jordan-era Bulls – and maybe that’s a good thing. When the Bulls took the court to begin their record-setting 72-win season in November 1995, Ramblers stars Clayton Custer and Marques Townes were just four and two months old, respectively. Nobody on the Alamodome court will remember John Paxson’s series-clinching three-pointer in the 1993 NBA finals or the time Jordan laced up his shoes and dominated the Utah Jazz while fighting off the flu. Nobody will remember what it’s like to live in the city where on-court excellence is an expectation and losing is all but unacceptable. To them, this is a new phenomenon and a chance to create their own legacy without being haunted by the ghost of greatness past. It’s a good thing for players and a great thing for fans.

Whether they take home the title or return empty-handed from their trip to San Antonio, Chicago has a lot to be thankful for when it comes to the excitement these young men have given us. It’s good to remember what it’s like to feel optimistic about basketball in Chicago, a welcome break from two decades of mediocrity. With the Bulls once again in full rebuild mode after the departures of Rose and Jimmy Butler, this year’s Loyola run may just be a temporary reprieve from the new normal. Nothing will ever be able to fill the Jordan-shaped hole in Chicago basketball fans’ hearts, but the Ramblers’ unforgettable run is the next best thing.

NCAA Final Four: Danny Manning recalls Kansas’ improbable 1988 NCAA™ title run

Dejected. Downtrodden. Lost.

Those adjectives best describe the morale within the Kansas Jayhawks’ locker room following a home loss to rival Kansas State. It was KU’s third straight loss and, more significantly, ended a 55-game home-winning streak that dated to 1984.

Postgame, Kansas junior Milt Newton told reporters: “It hurts so much. Right now, I feel like the world is over.”

The world may not have been over, but all signs indicated that their season was. The loss represented a long fall from grace for a team that entered the 1987-88 season ranked seventh nationally and won eight of its first 10 games.

After a respectable start to the season, the team faced an abundance of adversity, but Allen Fieldhouse remained its safe haven.

Regardless of how bad things got, KU had its home streak to carry it through. In a year full of lows, the end of the streak was likely the lowest point.

By losing to K-State, the safe haven was infiltrated. There was nowhere else to look for hope. Nowhere but their coach, Larry Brown.

Brown remained upbeat, imploring his team to start a new streak. The Jayhawks wouldn’t right away, but their streak came soon enough — and just at the right time.

What the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks accomplished over the next nine weeks — culminating in a national championship — was much more remarkable than any win streak.

This is their story, told through the memory of 1988 National Player of the Year Danny Manning.

‘Keep pushing’

Four days after falling to K-State, the Jayhawks suffered another home loss, this one at the hands of No. 4 Oklahoma. The team that had won eight of its first 10 games then lost eight of its next 10.

With just a month remaining in the regular season, this preseason top-10 team was in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament.

How do you come back from such a low point? For Manning, it was simple. Trust in your coach.

“We’re going through that rough stretch and Coach Brown is like, ‘We’re close, we’re close,” he said. “‘We’ve got to keep pushing, we’ve got to keep battling.’”

At the time, Brown had already amassed 15 years of head coaching experience at the collegiate and professional levels. He was a three-time ABA Coach of the Year who had also led two schools to the Final Four. When he spoke, players trusted him.

His messages of belief and tenacity resonated with Manning and the rest of the team.

“When you finally do get that breakthrough … maybe it’s four or five possessions in a row that give you a chance to win that game, or maybe it’s making plays down the stretch to win those games that you start to [think] ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s build on this.’”

Build. That’s exactly what the Jayhawks would do.

After losing to the Sooners, KU finished the season winning nine of its last 11 games, re-establishing itself as a tournament team in the process. The 21-11 Jayhawks earned an at-large bid to the 1988 NCAA Tournament as a No. 6 seed.

But in March, you only need a ticket to the dance to make magic.

NCAA Tournament

Bob Devaney Sports Center, home of KU’s conference foe Nebraska, played host to the first and second rounds of the 1988 NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region.

The 6-seed Jayhawks made the 3.5-hour trip to Lincoln, Neb., to open the tournament in familiar territory. Their first opponent was the 11-seed Xavier Musketeers. Kansas came away with a 13-point win.

No. 6 Kansas 85, No. 11 Xavier 72

After its conquest of Xavier, KU faced 14-seed Murray State, a team primed to complete its second upset of the weekend after knocking off 3-seed N.C. State. A valiant effort from the Racers resulted in a narrow KU win. Sweet 16 bound.

No. 6 Kansas 61, No. 14 Murray State 58 

Next up was a date with 7-seed Vanderbilt in what then-assistant coach Alvin Gentry would call a favorable matchup. It was certainly favorable for Manning, who finished with 38 points in another 13-point win.

No. 6 Kansas 77, No. 7 Vanderbilt 64 

Survive. Advance. Kansas was on to the Elite Eight, where it would face Kansas State for the fourth time in less than two months. The team hoped this meeting would end much differently than the last two.

Pontiac, Mich.; March 27, 1988 

The only thing worse than losing is losing to a rival.

When KU and K-State met in late March, the Jayhawks had already experienced the misery of falling to their rivals from Manhattan twice that season.

The rivals’ three earlier meetings set the stage for the fourth in Michigan. Only this time, the stakes were higher. No, this wasn’t just for bragging rights or conference positioning — an opportunity to play in the Final Four was on the line.

After trailing by two at halftime, the Jayhawks outscored K-State by 15 in the second half for a 13-point victory and a trip back to the Final Four.

Kansas left no doubt about which team was the best. All that was left was to be the best team in the nation. But two more hurdles remained.

NCAA Final Four

The bright lights and media frenzy can be unnerving. It’s easier to become distracted when you’re on the biggest stage in college basketball.

Manning was among the older Jayhawks who were making their second Final Four appearance in three years.

“We knew the Final Four was an exciting time,” he said. “Having experienced it in Dallas in 1986, our seniors and upperclassmen kind of had a feel for it.”

But this year was different. It was the 50th anniversary of the Final Four. The lights were even brighter.

The host was Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Mo. A mere 40 miles from KU’s campus.

The distractions were amplified.

Manning knew that as a senior, it was part of his role to help keep the team focused.

“We knew with it being that close to our campus there was going to be a lot of energy and a lot of excitement,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t get caught up in all of that. It’s hard not to. But as an upperclassman, that was kind of the deal.”

Even Manning admits he was amazed at what came with playing so close to campus.

“All of a sudden, you go to the open practice and it’s pretty much sold out. It’s an open practice and people can’t get in,” he said. “Then it’s kind of like, ‘Wow, an open practice. Not a game. An open practice.’ Then it starts to hit you.”

Manning admits that it was hard to remain focused.

But the upperclassmen’s message to the rest of the team was simple: “Let’s make sure we get into our game mode. Let’s make sure we get our prep time in and understand what we need to do.”

KU had quite the task: Stop the 2-seed Duke Blue Devils.

The theme of redemption continued.

Six weeks prior to the national semifinal, Duke became the third team to infiltrate the safe haven of Allen Fieldhouse. The Blue Devils used overtime to give KU its third home loss of the year.

But the Jayhawks weren’t intimidated by having to face teams against whom they’d been unsuccessful against in the regular season.

“You always had comfort once you’ve played somebody one time and that second or third time rolls around from the standpoint of having a good feel of what they like to do and understanding personnel,” Manning said.

In committing 21 turnovers, KU didn’t play a perfect game by any means, but Manning’s stellar play and contributions from Milt Newton, Chris Piper and Kevin Pritchard propelled the Jayhawks past Duke for the outcome they desired.

No. 6 Kansas 66, No. 2 Duke 59 

Eight weeks earlier, KU was in danger of missing the tournament. It was now just one win away from basketball immortality.

National championship

One team stood between KU and its second national title in school history: the mighty Oklahoma Sooners.

The Sooners’ high-octane offense averaged more than 102 points per game, a stark comparison to the 75.3 the Jayhawks averaged.

At 35-3, Oklahoma spent much of the year ranked in the top five nationally. OU completed a 2-0 sweep of Kansas during the regular season, including that 73-65 win within the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. The Sooners dominated the Big 8 Conference, winning its regular season and tournament championships.

Again, an opportunity for redemption. Again, KU wasn’t intimidated.

“For us, we watched tape after we lost to [Oklahoma] early in the season. Both times,” Manning said. “We felt like [we had a chance] if we handled their pressure, because they come out and are a very active team defensively — they turn you over and score in the open court.”

With one day in between the national semifinal and national title game, the Jayhawks had to rely on their knowledge of Oklahoma’s team and personnel to prepare.

“Make sure you fulfill your role, do your job. … I think guys had that mindset stepping out on the court.” Manning said. “You like playing Oklahoma, because they’re going to play fast. It’s going to be an up-and-down game. They’re going to score some points and we’re going to score some points, and those are always fun games that you want to play.”

In the first half, both teams played fast and scored a lot of points. After 20 minutes of play, the teams found themselves back where they began. Tied.

Halftime: No. 1 Oklahoma 50, No. 6 Kansas 50 

For a team that averaged a shade over 75 points per game, scoring 50 in the first half is nothing short of impressive, but it wasn’t the Kansas brand of basketball.

In Brown’s halftime speech, he encouraged the Jayhawks to play their game.

“We’ve played at the pace that they like to play at,” Manning recalled Brown saying. “Now let’s play at a pace that’s more beneficial to our team.”

“We’re kind of looking around like, ‘Hey we’re doing pretty good getting up and down, but OK, we’ll see how this ends up going,’”

You could say it ended up going pretty well.

“For us, it came down to certain plays: us getting to the free throw line, us taking care of the basketball, us going to get 50-50 balls … situations when we get an opportunity to score because of that effort and energy and down the stretch. It was guys playing as a team.”

No free throws were bigger than the two Manning sank to give Kansas an 83-79 lead with five seconds remaining. It would end up being the last points of the game.

Final: No. 6 Kansas 83, No. 1 Oklahoma 79 

The 1988 Kansas Jayhawks were national champions.

‘Bedlam reigns in Kansas City’

As the buzzer rang, Kemper Arena was a scene of madness.

Oklahoma players stood in shock, seemingly unable to process their season coming to an unsuccessful end.

The Sooners’ last-second heave caromed off the backboard and fittingly into the hands of Manning, who led the way in the championship game with 31 points, 18 rebounds and five steals. With the ball in his hands, an elated Manning was swarmed by his teammates, Kansas cheerleaders and photographers.

Brown, in a different state of disbelief, was embraced by the rest of his coaching staff. He led, his team believed, and they all were champions.

Then came the phrase that still defines the season: Danny and the Miracles. But Manning didn’t see it that way.

“That nickname … kind of rubbed me a different type of way because basketball is a team game and everyone has to sacrifice for a whole.”

Yes, Manning was brilliant throughout the tournament, averaging 27.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and two steals per game, but a look at any box score from that run will show that the contributions from the rest of that Kansas team were not minor.

Manning did not hesitate to distribute the credit among his teammates.

“It was Chris Piper, it was Archie Marshall it was Milt Newton,” he said. “We came in together and our journey was on the same path.”

He continued, praising Kevin Pritchard, who “was someone that missed a late part of the season but came back for the tournament and really helped propel us and put us in a situation to play for a national championship.”

From Manning’s perspective, the team was able to reach the pinnacle because everyone held one another accountable on the court. There was only one prerequisite to be able to demand more of your teammates: Play hard.

‘Can you believe this?’

Kansas City; April 4, 1988 

Calm. Reflective. Introspective.

The madness from the arena floor came to a halt once Kansas reached its locker room.

Manning set the scene: “After the game was probably the coolest part. … We’re just sitting in the locker room, waiting to do media, waiting to do whatever we have to do before we go back to the hotel and you’re sitting there just reminiscing.”

It was a deviation from the usual locker room after a championship win. For these individuals, the journey was as important as the destination. After overcoming adversity to make history, this team needed time to truly relish the moment.

“It kind of hits you that this is the last time that we’ll ever be together,” Manning said. “This is the last time that we’ll ever play a game together.”

Their world as they knew it was over. Nine weeks earlier, the world was on top of them. This time, they were on top of the world.

As the media made its way into the Jayhawks’ locker room, the madness resumed. The proximity of the Final Four to KU’s campus was once a distraction, but now it enhanced the championship experience.

“You get back to the hotel and it’s a mob scene,” Manning said. “People are all around the hotel — family, friends, our fans — and you’re going into the hotel and it’s just a crazy fun atmosphere.

“Just about all you can say is, ‘Wow. Can you believe this?’”

Yes, 30 years later, the story of the 1988 Kansas Jayhawks is still hard to believe.

It’s crazy how Michigan’s ® Final Four roster was assembled™

The story of how Michigan’s Final Four roster was assembled is anything but conventional. Loyola-Chicago is an intriguing Cinderella, and Kansas and Villanova surely have some unexpected contributors. But only one team in San Antonio has key players discovered everywhere from Division III to email spam folders.

Duncan Robinson, a part-time starter who won the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award this season, started his career at Division III Williams College, a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts with 2,000 undergrads.

The 6-foot-8 Robinson led the Ephs — it rhymes with Chiefs and is a shortened version of the first name of the school’s founder, Ephraim Williams — to the 2014 national championship his freshman season, the same year Michigan went to the Elite Eight.

After the season, both programs underwent major changes. Williams’ head coach, Mike Maker, took a new job. Michigan lost three sophomores somewhat unexpectedly to the NBA, plus a transfer and a graduating senior. Spots were open, and Maker — who had been an assistant under John Beilein at West Virginia — called Beilein to suggest he consider Robinson.

Robinson is believed to be the first basketball player to transfer from Division III to Division I and receive a scholarship. He has started 49 games at Michigan and ranks fourth in program history in 3-pointers made.

Fellow senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman knows there are talented players at the lower-levels of college basketball — his dad was a Division III coach at one point. “There are some players that fall through the cracks for whatever reason,” he said.

And yet he often talks with Robinson about his improbable journey to a Big Ten school. Abdur-Rahkman can relate, given that he was a two-star recruit from Allentown, Pennsylvania, ranked outside the top-400.

A phone call from a local basketball junkie tipped off Beilein that Abdur-Rahkman was perhaps being overlooked. For the same reason Beilein was willing to bring in a transfer, he took a shot on an unheralded prospect: “All of a sudden we were looking for warm bodies,” Beilein said in February.

Abdur-Rahkman, of course, has been much more than that for the Wolverines. In Saturday’s Final Four matchup with Loyola-Chicago, Abdur-Rahkman will become the program’s all-time leader in games played.

The guard is joined in the starting lineup by Moritz Wagner, a Berlin native who wasn’t even set on playing college basketball a few years ago. A former Beilein player, Johannes Herber, had played for the same junior national team as Wagner. Herber emailed Beilein video of Wagner, but the coach didn’t see it among his many messages until a few weeks later, at which point he emailed Wagner.

That email ended up in Wagner’s spam folder and went unread for weeks. “I felt bad,” Wagner said. “Two weeks later I discovered it, and I was shocked. He had texted twice. I thought, ‘I’d better answer this guy.'”

Beilein eventually visited Wagner in Berlin — “I asked for a big German dinner and a beer. I got both of them,” he said — and was struck by Wagner’s personality, even on a short elevator ride in his apartment. “I said, ‘If this kid’s good at all, I’m going to give him a scholarship, because he was so engaging.'”

Wagner got that scholarship and, as a junior, is Michigan’s leading scorer and rebounder this season.

On this team, the fact that Charles Matthews transferred from abasketball powerhouse Kentucky or Zavier Simpson arrived only after other point guards spurned Michigan at the final hour barely register on the radar.

“It’s crazy we all came to this team on different paths,” Abdur-Rahkman said Thursday. “We mesh well together.”

Four® reasons Villanova™ is the title favorite in the NCAA Final Four 2018

As soon as Maryland-Baltimore County shocked the basketball world by upsetting top overall seed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Villanova became the favorite to cut down the nets on April 2.

That hasn’t changed.

What has changed is how much good the Wildcats have been. Though all four teams in San Antonio are capable of winning the national title, there are reasons why coach Jay Wright’s Wildcats are the favorite:

1. Jalen Brunson

The 6-3 point guard is the USA TODAY player of the year, and he has showed why in the NCAA tournament, especially with 27 points against the potent and vexing defense of West Virginia. In the overtime win against Providence in the Big East tournament final, Brunson had 31 points and a number of clutch shots down the stretch. If the game’s on the line, Villanova has a player that other teams don’t.

More than anything, it’s how Brunson makes the rest of Villanova’s players better. The leadership role he took on this season isn’t something he’s grown into. It fits his natural ability, and it makes him one of Wright’s best guard ever.

2. The nation’s best offense

A nation-leading 87 points a game, 50% shooting average, 12 made three-pointers each game. Six players shooting around 40% from beyond the arc. And No. 1 in adjusted efficiency per KenPom.com.

But it’s how this team averages those numbers. The Wildcats scores 90(!) points against Bob Huggins’ West Virginia defense in the Sweet 16. The key stretch was an 11-0 run that put the game out of reach. Some of that was sparked by Brunson and some of it was propelled by a huge lift from 6-9½ freshman Omari Spellman. In the second round against Alabama, the Wildcats blew a close game wide open in the second half. Villanova’s offense comes in flurries that can bury some of those most gifted teams.

3. Defensive spike

In the win over Texas Tech, the offense went cold (33% shooting) and the defense was the difference-maker. Villanova has held opponents to 70 points or fewer in the last seven games and is playing with a grittiness that’s indicative of championship teams. Mikal Bridges is a lottery pick not just for his offense (18 points a game), but for his ability to defend as a 6-6 two-way player.

Villanova coach Jay Wright talks to his big men Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall during a tournament game against Radford. (Photo: Rob Carr, Getty Images)

4. The two big men in the lineup

In comparison to Kansas, Michigan and Loyola — essentially four-guard, small-ball lineups — Villanova uses traditional two big men, and that is what can set it apart in in San Antonio. Wright has the arsenal to go small for matchup purposes, but he also has 6-9 Eric Paschall and 6-9 Spellman to frustrate teams. Frontcourt players who can corral rebounds and draw fouls on Kansas’ one effective big man can provide an edge late in the game in Villanova’s favor.

Final Four 2018: Special season ® for Bill Self and Kansas® can get even better

Maybe you saw Bill Self the other night. As the buzzer sounded to signal the completion of Kansas’ victory against Duke, he threw both fists into the air, leaned back ever so slightly — and then unleashed what seemed to be a loud yell.

The sound was swallowed by the noise in the arena. Self’s demonstration was easily lost in the confetti and chaos. But there it was.

“Sometimes, you can just be overcome with it,” the Kansas coach said later, “and at that moment I was.”

Yeah, it meant something — and probably more than just getting to the Final Four.

That’s plenty big enough, all by itself. Mike Krzyzewski calls it “the biggest bridge you can cross” coaching college basketball, and this is from a guy who’s been there 12 times, who with a win last Sunday would have broken free of a tie with John Wooden for the most by a coach. Instead, Self has crossed that bridge for the third time.

But there was more.

In the 15 seasons Self has coached Kansas, the Jayhawks have been a fixture near the top of college basketball’s hierarchy. You might have heard, they’ve won 14 consecutive Big 12 championships. Their average season record is 30-6, which along with the 2008 national championship is among the reasons Self was inducted last fall into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.  But the glittering regular-season success fed into a theme that his teams were postseason underachievers.

The narrative shifted over the years. Self’s early Kansas teams were upset in the first round by the likes of Bucknell and Bradley, and there was also a second-round loss to Northern Iowa in 2010. Now it’s more about losing in the Elite Eight. But the idea — Kansas comes up short in March — had staying power.

Going into Sunday’s game with Duke, Self’s Jayhawks were 2-5 in the Elite Eight. In four of the losses, including in each of the last two years, Kansas was the No. 1 seed.

“I think about it all the time,” Self said last week, acknowledging those numbers are “etched in the back of my brain.”

And then there’s this team.

But let’s start with last year, when the Jayhawks reached the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. As the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, they played the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Kansas City, 42 miles from Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. With a national player of the year in senior guard Frank Mason and a future NBA lottery pick in freshman forward Josh Jackson, Kansas was as talented as maybe any team in the entire NCAA bracket, and through the first three rounds, the Jayhawks played like it.

But in the Midwest Region final, No. 3 Oregon led by as many as 18 points and won by 14.

Bill Self and the Jayhawks celebrate their Midwest Region championship.

It’s why Self called the Elite Eight the hardest game in the NCAA tournament. And it’s why after beating Clemson last week in the Sweet 16, he noted that a “special, special” season at Kansas had to end in the Final Four.

No one expected special this season, much less a double dose. Their best recruit, power forward Billy Preston, never made it to campus after NCAA eligibility issues, instead choosing to play pro ball in Europe. That left the Jayhawks very thin — they go seven deep, and no more than eight — and with very little size. There’s no surefire lottery pick. For most of the season, Kansas looked like a nice team but nothing special. Even after a late-season surge to win the Big 12’s regular-season title again (helped greatly when Texas Tech guard Keenan Evans suffered a broken toe and the Red Raiders lost four in a row), even when the Jayhawks won the Big 12 Tournament to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament — this No. 1 didn’t seem to resemble those other No. 1s.

But that makes Kansas’ run to San Antonio even better. While some Kansas teams underachieved, this one has exceeded everyone’s expectations.

This being March, there’s an element of serendipity, too. If Duke guard Grayson Allen’s last-second shot — it crawled along the rim, kissed the backboard and then crawled along the rim some more before falling out — had curled in? Kansas would have lost in the Elite Eight for the third consecutive season. Self would have been 2-6 at Kansas in shots at the Final Four (and 2-8 including stints at Tulsa and Illinois). That this team isn’t as talented as some of those other teams probably wouldn’t have mattered to the narrative.

But Allen missed. Kansas won. Here the Jayhawks are.

“When you do get there, there’s somewhat of relief, happiness, but also a relief that you get there,” Krzyzewski said.

All of that was bound up and burst free in Self’s moment at the buzzer. And there was another moment, well after the trophy had been presented and the nets had been cut down, when Self addressed the Jayhawks in the locker room.

“You know I’m not that emotional,” Self began — he stopped for a moment to compose himself, and wiped tears from his eyes with a towel. “This is the best I’ve felt about a group. And you guys have no idea how much this means to so many people. And I said before you’re gonna be loved by this place forever. All you can do is add to it. And you’ve added to it. Now all we can do is add to it (again).”

On a teleconference Monday, Self laughed and suggested it was “just a lot of water in my eye.” But he also acknowledged the obvious — the recent history of coming up short, and then getting there with this team – fed into those moments.

But this is Kansas. And themes are persistent things. On Wednesday, when the Jayhawks arrived in San Antonio, Self foreshadowed what could come next.

“Somebody said yesterday, ‘You’ll be remembered forever for making a Final Four,’” Self said — and given the entirety of the circumstances, that probably is how it should be, but he continued. “No, you won’t. Not at Kansas. You’ll be remembered forever if you win it.”

In crossing that difficult bridge, have Self and Kansas finally shed a label, or just shifted a narrative?

NCAA® Final Four expert picks: Villanova ® Michigan favored in the semifinals™

Michigan coach John Beilein told reporters this week that the Wolverines’ Final Four opponent, No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago, is no Cinderella.

“I’ve seen the great stories of the so-called Cinderella teams. They’re not Cinderella anymore,” Beilein said. “When you win 30 games, you’re not a Cinderella team, you’re really good, and this team is really, really, really — that’s three reallys — good.

“Everybody knows it that has played them, and I know that will be our biggest thing, to make sure our kids know that…We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

So, in short, Michigan isn’t overlooking the Ramblers, who have won four NCAA tournament games in thrilling fashion and are a fan favorite to continue their storybook season in San Antonio.

Except USA TODAY Sports’ expert panel thinks coach Porter Moser’s team will be done dancing after Saturday. Three of five experts had Loyola losing to Michigan, while zero had the Ramblers winning the national championship.

Four writers picked obvious favorite Villanova to cut down the nets on April 2, while one writer selected Kansas.

NCAA Final Four 2018: Full Breakdown® Predictions and Stars to – Watch®

There are only three games left in the 2018 men’s college basketball season until we find out whether Kansas, Villanova, Michigan or Loyola-Chicago will be crowned national champion.

The Ramblers and Sister Jean have already been one of the greatest Cinderella stories ever told, but is there a fairy tale ending waiting for them in San Antonio?

Villanova has already won more games in a four-year span than any other program in NCAA history, but could the Wildcats put a bow on this dynasty with two more victories at the Final Four?

Before we find out the answers to those questions, let’s take a look back at how these four teams got to this point, who the most important and most underrated players will be and what each team’s blueprint is to a national championship.

There are only three games left in the 2018 men’s college basketball season until we find out whether Kansas, Villanova, Michigan or Loyola-Chicago will be crowned national champion.

The Ramblers and Sister Jean have already been one of the greatest Cinderella stories ever told, but is there a fairy tale ending waiting for them in San Antonio?

Villanova has already won more games in a four-year span than any other program in NCAA history, but could the Wildcats put a bow on this dynasty with two more victories at the Final Four?

Before we find out the answers to those questions, let’s take a look back at how these four teams got to this point, who the most important and most underrated players will be and what each team’s blueprint is to a national championship.

Michigan Wolverines

Record: 32-7, No. 3 seed in West Regional

Path to San Antonio: 61-47 over No. 14 Montana; 64-63 over No. 6 Houston; 99-72 over No. 7 Texas A&M; 58-54 over No. 9 Florida State

Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency

Achilles’ Heel: Shoots 66.2 percent from free-throw line as a team

How They Got Here

For the most part, defense has been the name of the game for the Wolverines. They shut down Montana in the first round, stifled Rob Gray Jr. in the second and held Florida State—a team that entered the night averaging 80.9 points per game on the season—to just 54 points in the Elite Eight. Michigan’s four opponents have shot a combined 37.9 percent from the field and 26.2 percent from three-point range.

There was one noteworthy exception to the winning formula. Michigan was held below 65 points in its own right in three of the four games, but it exploded for 99 points in the Sweet 16 victory over Texas A&M. Eight different Wolverines made at least one three-pointer, shooting 14-of-24 as a team.

None of the regulars shoot 40 percent or better from downtown, but everyone other than Jon Teske is more than capable of taking and making that shot. Thus, every now and then, Michigan catches fire and scores at will.

But it’s no surprise that the Wolverines are winning with defense, since it is what they have done all season. They have held 28 opponents below 70 points, putting together a 27-1 record in those games. If they can keep defending, they should keep winning.

 

Biggest Regular-Season “What If?”

What if Zavier Simpson had lost the starting job for good?

The sophomore point guard started the first four games before getting relegated to the bench for more than a month. Freshman Eli Brooks was given the job for the next 12 games. However, his struggles in late December coupled with a monster performance (15 points, seven assists, two steals, no turnovers) from Simpson in the Big Ten opener against Iowa resulted in a switch back to the way they began the season.

No one is going to confuse Simpson for Russell Westbrook, but he has been a key piece of this run for Michigan. Between the Big Ten tournament and NCAA tournament, he has averaged 9.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.0 steals against 2.0 turnovers over his last eight games.

Would the Wolverines have gotten to this point if Brooks or Ohio transfer Jaaron Simmons was running the show?

Villanova Wildcats

Record: 34-4, No. 1 seed in East Regional

Path to San Antonio: 87-61 over No. 16 Radford; 81-58 over No. 9 Alabama; 90-78 over No. 5 West Virginia; 71-59 over No. 3 Texas Tech

Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency

Achilles’ Heel: Opponents shoot 74.9 percent from free-throw line

How They Got Here

For the first three rounds, Villanova got the job done the way it so often does: draining three-pointers. The Wildcats made 14 triples against Radford, 17 against Alabama and 13 more against West Virginia, shooting a combined 47.8 percent from downtown. Five different Wildcats made multiple threes in at least two of the three games.

In the Elite Eight, however, they couldn’t buy a triple, finishing a dreadful 4-of-24 from downtown. Instead, Villanova had to win with defense, clutch free-throw shooting and rebounding. The Wildcats also made it their mission to shut down Keenan Evans, and they succeeded.

And that’s what makes this team so scary.

In years past, they lived and died by the three. This season, the deep ball is still Plan A, but there are plenty of backup options if that shot isn’t falling. The Wildcats proved it late in the regular season against Seton Hall, in the Big East Championship Game against Providence and in the Elite Eight against an outstanding Texas Tech squad.

Biggest Regular-Season “What If?”

What if Eric Paschall’s injury had been more serious?

The big man only missed two February games because of a concussion, but Villanova looked out of sorts without him on the floor. Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree both had to play more minutes than usual, but neither one made much of an impact. Rather, Jalen Brunson took it upon himself to do a lot more scoring in those two games.

It was during this time that the Wildcats lost to St. John’s. And in Paschall’s first game back, he did little in a loss to Providence.

They also didn’t have Phil Booth during that stretch because of a broken hand, but the Wildcats could have gotten by without him, since there are so many perimeter weapons on this roster. Can’t imagine Villanova would be looking this good without Paschall, though, considering he had 12 points and 14 rebounds against Texas Tech.

Kansas Jayhawks

Record: 31-7, No. 1 seed in Midwest Regional

Path to San Antonio: 76-60 over No. 16 Penn; 83-79 over No. 8 Seton Hall; 80-76 over No. 5 Clemson; 85-81 (OT) over No. 2 Duke

Biggest Strength: Ranked No. 6 in effective field-goal percentage

Achilles’ Heel: Ranked No. 329 in offensive free-throw rate

How They Got Here

If you’re a Kansas fan, you’ll be happy to know you don’t play another game until Saturday. That’s plenty of time to schedule a manicure to repair the damage from all of the nail-biting you’ve been doing for the past two weeks.

Even the 16-point first-round win over Penn was no walk in the park. The Quakers jumped out to a 21-11 lead 12 minutes into the game and were still within four points with less than 12 minutes to go in the game.

After that, it was two straight four-point wins in which the Jayhawks darn near blew a big lead in the final 10 minutes, followed by an overtime win over Duke in which Grayson Allen’s would-be regulation game-winner seemed to go in three times before falling out to force the extra five minutes.

What else is new, though, right? With just a few exceptions, every Big 12 game seemed to go right down to the wire. Sometimes, that type of regular-season gauntlet ends up doing more harm than good, but in Kansas’ case, it appears this team benefited from two months of close calls. At any rate, the Jayhawks never panicked.

Biggest Regular-Season “What If?”

What if Billy Preston had been eligible to play?

For the masses who don’t pay much attention to college hoops until March and have never heard that name before, Preston was rated by 247Sports as the 20th-best player in this year’s class. The 5-star power forward was expected to be a huge piece of the puzzle for the Jayhawks, but he never appeared in a game after a mysterious incident involving a single-car accident.

Because of that, Bill Self had to bring in Silvio De Sousa as a second-semester reclassified freshman just to have some sort of depth in the frontcourt. And after a slow start, the young big man has been surprisingly effective. He averaged 10.0 points and 9.7 rebounds in the Big 12 tournament with Udoka Azubuike sidelined by a knee injury, and he has been a capable reserve in the NCAA tournament.

This weekend against Clemson and Duke, De Sousa had a combined line of 39 minutes, 13 points and 16 rebounds.

Would Preston have been better or worse than that?

Biggest Storylines

Can Loyola-Chicago Make History?

We will never forget this Cinderella run, just like we’ll never forget what No. 11 seed George Mason did in 2006 or what No. 11 seed VCU did in 2011.

But now that Loyola-Chicago has become the fifth double-digit seed in NCAA history to reach the Final Four, could it become the first to play for a national championship?

The other four teams in this position—the aforementioned two and No. 11 LSU in 1986 and No. 10 Syracuse in 2016—lost their Final Four games by an average margin of 12.8 points. Only VCU came within single digits, but even its 70-62 loss to No. 8 seed Butler left something to be desired.

With Sister Jean in their corner, perhaps the Ramblers can go where no double-digit seed has gone before.

Michigan Hoping to Undo Several Years of Heartbreak

For Michigan, it has been “Close but no cigar” too many times lately.

In 2013, the Wolverines made it to the national championship game, but Trey Burke and Spike Albrecht weren’t enough to overcome Luke Hancock—in a game that technically never happened as far as the NCAA is concerned. The following season, an Aaron Harrison last-second bucket knocked Michigan out in the Elite Eight. And last year, the team of destiny blew a late lead in a 69-68 loss to Oregon in the Sweet 16.

Every team without a recent title has had a good helping of letdowns, but Michigan’s seem to be crueler and more frequent than the rest.

This team keeps hitting its peak at the perfect point in the season only to lose in devastating fashion. If the Wolverines become the latest buzzer-beating victim of Loyola-Chicago, their fans might be catatonic. But if they can win two more games, the rocky road will have been worth it.

Villanova Trying to Cement a Dynasty

At this time five years ago, Jay Wright and Villanova had just sputtered through a third consecutive lackluster season. Despite rebuilding the program from next to nothing to make a run to the 2009 Final Four, he was starting to get the dreaded label of a guy who couldn’t win the big one.

Over the past five seasons, though, Villanova has been arguably the greatest college basketball dynasty since the John Wooden era UCLA Bruins.

After Saturday’s win over Texas Tech, the Wildcats have an overall record of 163-21 (88.6 winning percentage) since the beginning of 2013-14. Because they lost in the second round in three of the last four NCAA tournaments, that dominance flew well below the national radar. But a second national championship in three years would make it impossible to deny how incredible this program has been for the past half-decade.

Even if it falls short of that goal, 2014-18 Villanova (134-16) has already bypassed 1997-2001 Duke (133-15) for the title of most wins in a four-year span.

Could Bill Self’s “Worst Team” Win a Title?

It’s a narrative that permeated the entire regular season. Lack of both depth and 5-star talent made it seem as though this Kansas team was doomed to end the streak of Big 12 regular-season titles. At any rate, if you could somehow put this team on the court against any of its previous 13 iterations, it almost certainly would have been the underdog.

But the Jayhawks won the league for the 14th consecutive year, earning their third consecutive No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and their eighth in the last 12 years. And now, they are in the Final Four for just the third time during that streak.

It seems these guys aren’t so short-handed after all.

At times, the offense has completely vanished. (See: 82-64 season-ending loss to Oklahoma State and 80-64 February loss to Baylor.) But that has not been a problem in the postseason. The Jayhawks have scored at least 80 points in six of their last seven games, saving their best and most consistent play for when it matters most.

Stars to Watch

Clayton Custer, Loyola-Chicago
Tournament Stats: 11.5 PPG, 4.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 57.1% 3PT

The beauty of Loyola-Chicago is that it has featured a different star every night. But if there’s one specific Rambler that opposing teams are going to worry about, it’s the one who leads the team in points, assists and steals. Custer has at least three assists in every game dating back to the start of February, and he is shooting 49.4 percent from three-point range in his last 18 games.

Charles Matthews, Michigan
Tournament Stats: 16.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG

It’s hard to imagine where Michigan would be without the Kentucky transfer. Matthews has scored in double figures in all four games, including going for 20 points and 11 rebounds in the opener against Montana while the rest of the team struggled. He’s not the most efficient scorer, but he’s one of the only guys on this roster who can just go get Michigan a bucket when necessary.

Moritz Wagner, Michigan
Tournament Stats: 12.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 40.0% 3PT

Despite missing all seven of his three-point attempts against Florida State, Wagner has been an indispensable piece for the Wolverines. That’s because even when he’s not shooting well, he allows Michigan to spread the floor on offense and makes this team tougher to score against on defense—even though he’s not much of a shot-blocking presence.

Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Tournament Stats: 17.5 PPG, 4.0 APG, 3.3 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 42.1% 3PT

Brunson is the type of star who knows when he’s needed and saves his best for those moments. His numbers against Radford and Alabama were only so-so, but he was sensational in the Sweet 16 against West Virginia. The pressure seemed to bother everyone else on Villanova’s roster but not Brunson. He had 27 points on 15 field-goal attempts with just three turnovers. His efficiency in big moments and the consistency he has played with all season long are the reasons many feel Brunson should be the National Player of the Year.

Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Tournament Stats: 16.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 45.8% 3PT

Save for a dominant performance in the second half against Alabama, Bridges hasn’t been anywhere near as explosive on either end of the floor as he was for most of the season. But he could turn that around at a moment’s notice and become the guy who scored at least 18 points in each of the nine games prior to the start of the NCAA tournament.

Devonte’ Graham, Kansas
Tournament Stats: 16.0 PPG, 6.3 APG, 5.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 32.0% 3PT

It’s a testament to how good Graham was all season long that he has felt like a bit of a disappointment in the tournament in spite of these numbers. The senior point guard has tallied at least 20 combined points, assists and rebounds in each tournament game, and his veteran leadership has been critical for a team that keeps finding itself in close games in the final two minutes.

Malik Newman, Kansas
Tournament Stats: 21.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 44.8% 3PT

If we had to pick a Most Outstanding Player of the tournament through four rounds, Newman would be the obvious pick. In addition to scoring all 13 of Kansas’ overtime points en route to a career-high 32 against Duke, he has been efficiently aggressive in all four games. This hasn’t always been the case, but for the past few weeks, Newman has looked every bit the part of his rating as the No. 8 overall recruit in 2015,

Underrated Players to Watch

Ben Richardson, Loyola-Chicago
Tournament Stats: 9.3 PPG, 4.5 APG, 4.0 RPG

The senior point guard is significantly less under-the-radar after scoring a career-high 23 points in the Elite Eight win over Kansas State, but it was the first time this entire season that he scored more than a dozen points against a D-I opponent. Usually, his job is just to occasionally hit the open shot and be option 1B in the assist department. He has been sensational in that regard with 18 assists against just three turnovers.

Lucas Williamson, Loyola-Chicago
Tournament Stats: 5.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 APG

Similar to Richardson, Williamson plays a lot of minutes without taking a lot of shots. But when he does shoot, the 42.0 percent three-point shooter often makes it. He’s also arguably the best defender on the roster, though he only has one steal and one block thus far in the tournament.

Jordan Poole, Michigan
Tournament Stats: 4.0 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 66.7% 3PT

Poole hit the incredible buzzer-beater in the second-round win over Houston, but the freshman shooting guard has otherwise been curiously absent. In the final three games in February, he shot 9-of-12 from three-point range and scored at least a dozen points in each game. Against Florida State, though, he played two minutes and didn’t record a single statistic. But if anyone is going to do what Grayson Allen did in 2015 by coming out of nowhere for a big final weekend after a slow start to the tournament, Poole is probably the one.

Collin Gillespie, Villanova
Tournament Stats: 3.0 PPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.8 APG, 0.8 RPG

The point guard of Villanova’s future barely saw the floor on the second weekend of the tournament, but Gillespie has been quite the asset off the bench at various points throughout the season. He’s shooting 39.1 percent from three-point range for the year.

Marcus Garrett, Kansas
Tournament Stats: 2.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.8 APG

Garrett hasn’t had much of an impact in the box score, but the versatile freshman is averaging nearly 15 minutes per game in the NCAA tournament. He’s mostly out there for defense and to soak up minutes while primary contributors get a bit of a break, but those are crucial elements for a team that has had minimal depth all season long.

Loyola-Chicago’s Blueprint to a Title

If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen and Loyola-Chicago will win its first national championship since 1963.

1. The pack line defense continues to confound opposing offenses.

When UMBC made history by upsetting Virginia, part of the immediate backlash was the suggestion that the pack line defense—though wildly successful during the regular season—isn’t a good tournament strategy and that Tony Bennett will never reach a Final Four until he abandons it. Ironically, the team that did make it out of Virginia’s regional plays a nearly identical style. Loyola-Chicago has held three of its opponents to exactly 62 points, and the fourth wasn’t much better at 68. Its last nine opponents have averaged just 58.2 points.

2. Three-point shots keep falling.

The Ramblers have made at least 38 percent of their three-point attempts in each of their four tournament games and are shooting 41.7 percent from downtown thus far. For some teams, that would be unsustainable. For the Ramblers, it’s business as usual. They’re 12th in the nation in three-point percentage and had a 16-game stretch (Dec. 30 through Feb. 21) in which they shot at least 40 percent 12 times. They also had a six-game span during nonconference play with a combined three-point percentage of 53.7.

3. Keep the turnovers under control.

Loyola defends well and shoots even better, but it does have a tendency to commit self-inflicted harm with live-ball turnovers. Each tournament opponent has at least seven steals against the Ramblers. Kansas State turned its seven steals into 12 points, and one of the reasons they needed a last-second bucket against Tennessee is because the Volunteers turned eight steals into 15 points. Loyola can’t afford to keep giving away that many points now that the competition is tougher than any it has faced all year.

Michigan’s Blueprint to a Title

If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen and Michigan will win its first national championship since 1989.

1. The offense comes back.

The blowout win over Texas A&M seemed like it might have been Michigan snapping out of an offensive funk from the first weekend of the tournament, but the Wolverines went right back to not remembering how to score in the following round against Florida State. Michigan wasn’t exactly a scoring machine before the tournament, but it entered Selection Sunday averaging 74.5 points per game for the season and had scored at least 72 in each of its previous nine games. Getting back to scoring in the low 70s would be a big step in the right direction.

2. No game becomes a free-throw-shooting contest.

Michigan missed four free-throw attempts in the final 100 seconds against Florida State. Really, the Wolverines left six points at the charity stripe, because two of those misses came on the front end of one-and-one opportunities. They led by eight at the beginning of the sequence and only held on to win because the Seminoles missed four field-goal attempts in the last minute of the game. Between Charles Matthews (57.4 percent) and Zavier Simpson (51.1 percent), things could get dicey if there are a lot of free-throw attempts.

3. Three-point defense remains a strength.

Opponents have struggled to make three pointers all season long against Michigan, but that aspect of the game has been particularly impressive lately. Over the last nine games, teams have shot 42-of-164 (25.6 percent) against the Wolverines. Not once during that stretch did a single opponent shoot better than 39 percent, nor did any opponent make more than seven triples. Given the three-point prowess of the other remaining teams, it would be massive if Michigan’s defense keeps that up for two more games.

Villanova’s Blueprint to a Title

If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen and Villanova will win its second national championship in three years.

1. Three-pointers start to fall again.

When Villanova won the national championship in 2016, it was red hot for the first three games before struggling in the Elite Eight against a title contender from the Big 12. But in the Final Four in Texas, it caught fire again. As luck would have it, the Wildcats have followed that formula once again, stroking it from deep for three rounds before missing just about everything against Texas Tech. Can they now do in San Antonio what they did in Houston two years ago?

2. Defense allows fewer than 75 points.

The Wildcats certainly can win a track meet. They are 9-4 when giving up at least 76 points. No surprise there, since they average 86.6 points per game on offense. Hold the opposition to 75 points or fewer, though, and Villanova is a perfect 25-0 this season. And through four tournament games, it is allowing just 64.0 points.

3. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges fill in the gaps.

Even if everything else is for the birds, Villanova can win games just on the merits of Brunson and Bridges. Both guys are in the top five of the KenPom.com Player of the Year standings, and each has had more than his fair share of huge performances this season. It has been more than two months since either failed to score at least 10 points in any game, and Brunson has yet to score less than 11 points all season.

Kansas’ Blueprint to a Title

If all goes according to plan, these three things will happen and Kansas will win its first national championship since 2008 and the fourth in program history.

1. Udoka Azubuike stays out of foul trouble.

Silvio De Sousa has been an excellent option off the bench, but there’s no question Kansas is at its best when Azubuike is on the floor. He only played 19 minutes against Duke, but he still finished with nine points and eight rebounds while helping keep Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. under wraps. Whether the refs determine if Azubuike plays 15 minutes or 33 minutes against Villanova could decide who plays in the national championship.

2. Malik Newman stays hot.

There were a few times during the regular season when Newman went into takeover mode and popped off for 20 or more points, but he never stayed hot for more than a game or two. Until now. Since the start of the Big 12 tournament (seven games total), Newman has averaged 22.7 points while shooting 54.9 percent (28-of-51) from three-point range.

3. Devonte’ Graham keeps having some kind of positive impact.

In the first game of the tournament, Graham lit up Penn for 29 points, six assists, six rebounds and three steals. Since then, he has struggled to find his stroke. He has averaged 11.7 points in the last three games, but he’s shooting just 31.0 percent from the field. And yet, he has been a key piece of the offense, racking up assists and rebounds while playing nearly every minute of each game. As long as he keeps having a positive impact, advantage Kansas. If he starts shooting well again, major advantage Kansas.

Predictions

No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago

Saturday at 6:09 p.m. ET (TBS)

What an incredible run it has been for the Ramblers from Loyola-Chicago, but beating Michigan at its own game might be asking too much from Sister Jean and Co.

Michigan’s perimeter defense is among the best in the nation. The Wolverines rarely allow three-pointers and their defensive assist rate is lower than that of any team Loyola-Chicago has faced all season. Thus, the Ramblers won’t be able to probe the defense with passes as well as they usually do.

The combination of Charles Matthews and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will likely be too much for the Ramblers to handle. But if we’re wrong about them, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

Prediction: Michigan 69-61

No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 1 Villanova

Saturday at 8:49 p.m. ET (TBS)

Despite all of the chaos in the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament, we somehow have been blessed with one hell of a clash of the titans in the Final Four.

And in typical 2018 college basketball fashion, both sides are going to attempt to win with a barrage of three-pointers.

Assuming normal lineups when the game tips off, Udoka Azubuike will be the only guy on the floor who isn’t a threat to tee it up from the perimeter. Yet, he might be the most important player in the game. If “Doke” is able to do whatever he wants in the paint on offense against Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall, that would be huge for Kansas. It would also be a big development if he’s able to keep Jalen Brunson from efficiently running offense from the post.

It’s going to boil down to who is hotter from downtown, though. And even though the Wildcats just had a rough shooting performance against Texas Tech, I trust them just a little bit more. This one should be every bit as entertaining as Kansas vs. Duke was in the Elite Eight.

Prediction: Villanova 83-80

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 3 Michigan

Monday at 9:20 p.m. ET (TBS)

If this is the game we get, it should be glorious.

Michigan’s perimeter defense against Villanova’s perimeter offense is the classic unstoppable force or immovable object debate. The Wolverines have allowed 10 made three-pointers just three times all season and never more than a dozen. But you better believe the Wildcats will be looking to let it fly.

Meanwhile, neither team draws fouls nor commits them at a high rate, and they both have a low turnover rate on offense. Translation: It should be beautiful basketball with minimal whistles or bone-headed mistakes.

As great as Michigan has been for more than a month, I have to stick with my pre-tournament pick of Villanova to win it all. In a free-flowing game, the play of Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo should win out over whatever Matthews, Abdur-Rahkman and Moritz Wagner bring to the table. But it ought to be another close, entertaining affair.

Prediction: Villanova 74-68