The Men’s Final Four Championship is back in town for the first time in a decade, as one of the wildest NCAA Tournaments in recent memory careens towards its much-anticipated conclusion in the Alamodome.
This year’s field is a mix of long shots and powerhouses, with a trio of major programs and one unlikely Catholic university buoyed by faith and boundless self-belief. None of the seven qualifying Texas teams survived, but the mix of tradition and new blood (not to mention a player named Duncan Robinson) make San Antonio a fitting backdrop for these teams to duke it out.
For days, the Alamo City will be awash with the maize and gold of Michigan, navy blue of Villanova, crimson and blue of Kansas, and Gryffindor-esque maroon and gold of Loyola University Chicago. Each school brings something different to the table – a microcosm of a tournament that’s felt less like a hierarchy of dominant and less dominant squads, and more like a 68-way version of rock-paper-scissors. Anyone can truly beat anyone, something we learned in the opening weekend when overall number one seed University of Virginia lost to University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the first-ever 1-16 upset in tournament history.
Illustration by Carlos Aguilar
Your bracket, like UVA’s title hopes, has likely been ground to dust by now. Still intact, though: a competition that’s loaded with well-coached, versatile, fun teams, and one that’s still ripe for an upset or two.
A handful of Villanova players will be familiar with this weekend’s atmosphere, and its stakes. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Phil Booth were all underclassmen on the Wildcats team that stunned the North Carolina Tar Heels in the final moments of the 2016 NCAA title game. They’re now juniors and seniors, forming part of a well-balanced team that lost only four games in the regular season and led the entire country in scoring at 87 points per game.
The 6’3” Brunson (19.3 points per game) leads six players who average double figures in scoring. He’s the prototypical point guard for the college game, an experienced, mindful playmaker who can impose his will off the dribble and set up his teammates. If the Wildcats win it all, it’s hard to imagine him not playing a vital role.
Villanova will face off with No. 1-seeded Kansas in their Saturday-night semifinal, in a duel that some might consider the tournament’s deciding matchup. The Jayhawks clawed their way to the Final Four after an overtime win against Duke on Sunday, their third tournament game in a row decided by four points or less.
The Jayhawks aren’t packed with their usual cast of top-flight talent, but they remain a well-coached group that boasts potential National Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham, big man Udoka Azubuike, and Elite Eight hero Malik Newman. Newman propelled Kansas past Duke behind his 32 points, 13 of which came in overtime.
Illustration by Carlos Aguilar
Kansas also has tradition on its side. No team in the field comes close to the 15 Final Four appearances they now have. While they haven’t gotten this far since 2012, the Jayhawks have not relinquished their place atop the Big 12 conference, winning the regular season conference title every year since 2005.
On the opposite side of the bracket is third-seed Michigan. The Wolverines have counted on a slow pace as well as the guard play of guys like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews to get here. Both Abdur-Rahkman and Matthews can attack defenses off the dribble; when that fails, the team can also count on German big man Moritz Wagner, who can score inside and out.
Interesting details abound on the Wolverines’ roster, from a senior with the San Antonio-approved name of Duncan Robinson (in a statistical quirk, Michigan wins whenever the aptly named basketball player scores 6 or more points, which he’s done 22 times this season) to a walk-on and former student manager, C.J. Baird, who not only checked into Michigan’s Sweet 16 win over Texas A&M but fulfilled a childhood dream by hitting a three-pointer in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines come into San Antonio as the hottest team in the country, winners of 13 in a row, which has included a Big Ten tournament title and wins over both Houston and Texas A&M in the West region of the NCAA Tournament. While they’ve impressed, it hasn’t hurt that their path to the Final Four was blazed by some of the biggest bracket-busting results, allowing them to face the 14, 6, 7 and 9 seeds on their way to San Antonio. Now it’s unlikely 11-seeded Loyola University Chicago will stand in their way.
Illustration by Carlos Aguilar
The aforementioned Ramblers have somehow (or dare we say, miraculously) emerged from a region that included powerhouses Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee, Cincinnati, and overall number one seed Virginia. This isn’t their first rodeo technically (they made and won the Final Four once, in 1963), but make no mistake – Loyola Chicago is most certainly the Cinderella of this tournament.
Despite tying the lowest seed to ever reach the Final Four, this group is not short on confidence – or belief. A big reason for both: 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the former basketball player, turned nun, turned school teacher, turned academic advisor and (since the early 90s) chaplain for the basketball team. Sister Jean has famously been courtside during her school’s incredible run, but she’s far more than a face in the crowd, leading the team in pre-game prayers laced with scouting reports on the opposing team.
While Sister Jean has captured the imaginations of many college basketball fans, it’s the Loyola Chicago players who have been responsible for some of the tournament’s biggest moments on the court. Marques Townes and Mountain Valley Conference Player of the Year Clayton Custer have both hit game-winning jumpers, while freshman Cameron Krutwig (one of the few underclassmen to play an important role on the team) has given them an inside presence throughout with his soft touch and a number of old-school post moves.
The Ramblers don’t overwhelm opponents with singular talents, but they are a well-disciplined squad of mostly upperclassmen who have not wilted under the spotlight. Whether or not their run ends on Saturday against Michigan, their presence adds the perfect dash of enchantment and unpredictability to the 2018 Final Four, and is one of the many reasons the attention of millions will be on San Antonio heading into this final, increasingly mad weekend of college basketball.
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