10 most important players of the Final Four
Four teams are left standing as the NCAA Tournament shifts to San Antonio. The presence of top-seeded Kansas and Villanova can’t come as a huge surprise given their talent and the success of their programs. Michigan’s presence is a bit more surprising, but not utterly shocking, considering how well they’ve been playing down the stretch. Then there’s Loyola, which few, if any, could have predicted two short weeks ago.
They have all gotten here in different ways, but at the end of the day, a handful of key players will have a big say in deciding who moves on to Monday night’s championship and cuts down the nets. Here are ten key players who will take center stage at the Final Four.
Udoka Azubuike, Kansas
Kansas doesn’t have a huge emphasis on size, so Azubuike is a vital part of their attack. The seven-footer was at his best against Clemson, contributing 14 points and 11 rebounds. Villanova does have some size, and the likes of Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall can grab their share of rebounds and score in the paint. That only makes Azubuike even more important to the Jayhawks’ chances.
Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Bridges has chipped in with some scoring during Villanova’s tournament run, though like some of his teammates, he didn’t look his sharpest against Texas Tech. While the scoring is nice, Bridges’ value against Kansas is going to come in the form of defense. The Jayhawk guards are potent, and the Wildcats will need Bridges to be at his best defensively to at least partially nullify that threat and let the Villanova offense do its thing.
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
A newly-minted first-team All American, Brunson is coming off a game against Texas Tech where he struggled, at least by his standards. Brunson was dominant against West Virginia, and a repeat performance would make Kansas’ life very difficult. What doesn’t show up on the stat sheet is how Brunson makes his teammates better — he’s a quality leader and team player. Kansas must find a way to limit his influence.
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas
By his lofty standards, Graham’s NCAA Tournament hasn’t been the best. He was limited to 11 points against Duke, but found other ways to contribute, with six rebounds and six assists. That’s what makes him so great. Plus, there’s always the chance that he’ll go off in a game, like when he scored 26 points against Texas Tech last month. He may need to do so against Villanova, where he’ll pose a big challenge, even for their talented guards.
Cameron Krutwig, Loyola
Loyola has a lot of talented players, and their smaller lineup is capable of pushing them forward. It may be Krutwig, the freshman big man, who has the most important job on Saturday, though. At 6-foot-9, he’s best equipped to deal with Moritz Wagner, Michigan’s main offensive threat. He does have scoring ability, but it’s secondary. Michigan’s big men are threats from outside, and Krutwig has to neutralize at least one of them.
Charles Matthews, Michigan
The West Region’s Most Outstanding Player, Matthews has blossomed in the tournament for Michigan. The Kentucky transfer averaged 13 points per game on the season, but he’s been vital to Michigan’s NCAA Tournament success, scoring 18 and 17 in the last two games for the Wolverines. At 6-foot-6, he’s another difficult matchup for a smaller, less athletic Loyola team.
Malik Newman, Kansas
While Graham gets the awards hype, it has been Newman who has more or less carried Kansas through to the Final Four. He had a good season, but he’s taken it to another level in March. He scored 28 to pull the Jayhawks past Seton Hall, then put up 32 against Duke, converting five three-pointers in the process. Newman is playing his best basketball of the season, and you can make a strong case that he’s the Jayhawks’ best player right now.
Eric Paschall, Villanova
Paschall’s development into an interior force couldn’t have come at a better time for Villanova, and more or less got the Wildcats past Texas Tech. He scored 12 points — eight of them from the free throw line — and contributed 14 rebounds in that win. Villanova could well have an interior advantage against Kansas, making Paschall’s role vital, both on offense and defense. If he plays well, the Wildcats have a big edge.
Duncan Robinson, Michigan
Mo Wagner will get the bulk of the attention, but Robinson is going to be another huge matchup problem for a Loyola team that is a bit on the small side. He’s a 6-foot-8 stretch forward who can hit the three. With the Ramblers already worried about a similar player in Wagner, they’re going to have to figure out Robinson when the two are on the floor together. He may not pile up the points — 11 is his tournament high — but he can have a big impact.
Moritz Wagner, Michigan
Wagner makes Michigan tick. He averages 14.3 points per game, but has topped that mark only once in the tournament (during the Wolverines’ blowout win over Texas A&M) . He’s scored 5, 12, and 12 in the three other games, and it’s no coincidence that the margin for two of those games was very close. If Wagner’s shot is falling, Michigan has a good chance to make it to the championship game. It wasn’t against Florida State, and he’ll look to be better against Loyola.