This weekend, four teams will collide in San Antonio for the last chapter of the 2017-18 college basketball season — one of the most intriguing campaigns in recent history.
LaVar Ball pulled his son LiAngelo from school and took him to Lithuania after the former UCLA freshman had been detained in China for shoplifting. In September, a bribery scandal rocked the entire sport and led to the arrests of four Division I assistants and the dismissal of Rick Pitino at Louisville.
Top recruit Michael Porter Jr. played just two minutes of the regular season for Missouri because of a back injury. Collin Sexton nearly led Alabama to a win over Minnesota with just him and two of his teammates eligible to play in the final 10 minutes of a game in December.
The season will conclude in a matchup between four teams that have endured their own unexpected twists.
On Jan. 18, Nebraska, a squad that missed the NCAA tournament, beat Michigan by 20 points. But the Wolverines found a rhythm. They’ll come to San Antonio riding a 13-game winning streak. Bill Self led Kansas to the Final Four a decade after Mario’s Miracle and the school’s 2008 national title run. Villanova is back to compete for its second national title in three years.
And Sister Jean will accompany Loyola-Chicago, the most intriguing Cinderella since George Mason, to the national semifinals, too.
Every team in the field possesses the talent to leave San Antonio with a crown. But they’re all flawed enough to miss out on their dreams.
We’ll break down the details of both scenarios for each team.
Why Michigan will cut the nets down: The Wolverines are the bad boys of the Final Four
John Beilein’s team returns to the Final Four five years after its loss to Louisville in the national championship game. Beilein said he had no interest in claiming that title after the NCAA vacated Louisville’s win in that game because of the Katina Powell sex-for-pay scandal. But the team he’s taking to San Antonio this week can leave the Alamodome with the undisputed national title because the Wolverines will enter the Final Four with the best defense among the remaining teams. Beilein’s squad held Florida State to a 31.4 percent clip from the field in their Elite Eight matchup on Saturday. The Wolverines also contested 90 percent of FSU’s shots, per ESPN Stats & Information data. Think about that. The only Final Four team ranked within the top 10 on KenPom.com in adjusted defensive efficiency challenged nine of every 10 FSU shots. The Wolverines will win it all because the constrictive defensive pressure they apply is too sturdy to crack.
Why Michigan will leave San Antonio without a championship: Its inconsistent offense
Michigan’s defensive pressure has fueled its 13-game win streak. But every Michigan fan in the country is probably worried about the up-and-down offensive production of this defensive juggernaut. The same Michigan squad that connected on nearly 60 percent of its 3-point attempts in a win over Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 finished 4-for-22 from beyond the arc in Saturday’s victory against Florida State. The Wolverines rolled to a Big Ten championship with a potent offensive attack. In the NCAA tournament, however, Charles Matthews & Co. have averaged more than a point per possession in only one of their four games. They’ll need their best offensive output to compete with the hot shooters in San Antonio. A fluctuating offense, one that has failed to rise to its potential in the NCAA tournament, remains a concern.
Why Loyola-Chicago will cut the nets down: Destiny and quickness
If you had erased the Loyola-Chicago name and just focused on the numbers throughout the season, this run to the Final Four would not have seemed as miraculous. This is a team that has made more than 40 percent of its 3-pointers and played top-20 defense this season. But the Ramblers’ offensive charisma in the NCAA tournament, fueled by speedy guards Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer, has centered on their ability to get by players, draw extra defenders and open the floor for their shooters. The Ramblers have made 60 percent of their shots inside the arc during the NCAA tournament. They’re a hard team to contain because of their agility. But that is not the only reason to anticipate a Loyola-Chicago national championship. The Ramblers have reached this point off buzzer-beaters, wild bounces and clutch 3-pointers. Maybe that touch of fortune will continue in San Antonio.
Why Loyola-Chicago will leave San Antonio without a championship: A lack of elite playmakers
An 11-seed has never won the national championship. Why? When the best teams in the country come together to vie for the ultimate crown in a single-elimination event, the distance between the Cinderellas and their blue-chip opponents often shows. Loyola-Chicago is a talented team that has exceeded all expectations. But the Ramblers enter a final stretch that features legit NBA talent. To win it all, they’ll have to deal with Moritz Wagner and perhaps Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk or Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, all players who might secure spots on NBA rosters next season. This is where the fun often ends for the underdogs of the NCAA tournament, in part because they just can’t match the talent of the opposing teams they must beat to advance. And don’t mention Butler. The Bulldogs had lottery pick Gordon Hayward and second-round pick Shelvin Mack — who is averaging 6.6 points a game in the NBA right now — when they faced Duke in the national championship game in 2010. Loyola-Chicago does not have similar talent. It’s an uphill climb from here.
Why Kansas will cut the nets down: Malik Newman, KU’s third superhero
Both Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk will enter the NBA draft this summer and probably secure spots with pro teams. But Malik Newman is the best player on the roster right now. He could join them in the NBA. Since the start of the Big 12 tournament, he has led the team in scoring six times in seven games. He has made 55 percent of his 3-point attempts during that stretch, too. Before he scored 32 points in KU’s Elite Eight overtime victory against Duke on Sunday, Newman had led a Kansas squad that had registered 1.16 points per possession when he was on the floor in three previous NCAA tournament games, per hooplens.com. With Newman excelling at the right time, Self possesses a backcourt full of NBA prospects. And that’s why the Jayhawks will capture his second national title. Locking up three savvy guards is not an easy task.
Why Kansas will leave San Antonio without a championship: Fouls and Free Throws, the Udoka Azubuike Story
Udoka Azubuike is the most important player on the Kansas roster. He’s ranked seventh in ESPN.com’s player efficiency rating. Entering Sunday’s game against Duke, he had led the team in points per possession differential (hooplens.com) in the NCAA tournament. But he has fouled out in KU’s past two games, and he picked up four against Seton Hall in the second round. He has not played more than 25 minutes in a single NCAA tournament game this year as a result. His recovery from a sprained MCL has been a factor, too. The Jayhawks survived Azubuike’s late foul trouble against Duke, a great team with two potential lottery picks in the paint. In KU’s past four losses, however, Azubuike drew four fouls. Plus, he’s a 41 percent free throw shooter and a liability in the final minutes of tight games. To win another crown, Kansas might need Azubuike to avoid foul trouble and make free throws on the biggest stage in the sport. Neither is a guarantee.
Why Villanova will cut the nets down: It’s the best team in America
Jay Wright’s squad boasts a level of excellence that’s unmatched in college basketball. The Wildcats beat Gonzaga by double digits. This is a team that defeated Xavier, a No. 1 seed, by 40 points combined during two regular-season outings. Villanova, No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, scored 90 points against West Virginia in the Sweet 16. Mikal Bridges (18.0 PPG, 45 percent from beyond the arc) is a lottery pick. Jalen Brunson could win the Wooden Award before he earns a spot in the first round of this summer’s NBA draft. Six players on the roster have made at least 39 percent of their 3-pointers. But when the team’s shots weren’t falling against Texas Tech on Sunday in the Elite Eight, it relied on defensive discipline and contested 86 percent of the Red Raiders’ layups (ESPN Stats & Info). If every team in the field plays to its potential in the Final Four, Villanova will be the final team standing.
Why Villanova will leave San Antonio without a championship: The Wildcats aren’t unique
It’s difficult to identify any challenge that could ruin Nova’s pursuit of its second national title in the past three seasons. But this run does not resemble the team’s trip to the Final Four two years ago. That season, every opponent Villanova faced played a traditional two-big lineup. Meanwhile, Villanova used Kris Jenkins at power forward even though he was more of a wing than a big man. That design perplexed opponents that lacked the personnel to match up with Villanova. That’s not the case this season. Michigan, Loyola-Chicago and Kansas can all knock down 3-pointers. They’re all comfortable with their small-ball lineups. They all have crafty, quick guards. Villanova is not unique this time around. And that’s why the Wildcats could leave San Antonio without a championship.