Six biggest takeaways from Saturday’s Final Four games
The Final Four is college basketball’s greatest spectacle. All of March Madness, with all the juicy storylines and incredible game-play, leads to this one city and one event. The semifinals give us two chances at magic, though this year the games fell relatively flat.
Neither contest featured high drama at the end of the game, yet both felt like the perfect prequels to a championship showdown on Monday night.
The two teams that won conference tournaments at Madison Square Garden earlier this month have both stayed hot and reached the national final. Before looking too deeply into that game, let’s evaluate the biggest takeaways from Saturday’s action.
1. Moritz Wagner played winning basketball
The Wolverines were led by versatile center Mortiz Wagner, who totaled 24 points and 15 rebounds. His ability to score both inside and out made life far more difficult for the Loyola defense.
Wagner was critical on the glass, hauling in 6 of his 15 rebounds on the offensive end of the floor. Meanwhile, Wagner showcased his ability to step out and stretch the defense, sinking three jumpers from long range.
Wagner proved to be the toughest match-up on either team. He should give Villanova a difficult time as well.
2. Michigan earned extra possessions for themselves
In a tight contest that saw both teams hold double-digit leads, Michigan defeated Loyola Chicago to advance to the national championship game. Both teams struggled to make shots, potentially due to the difficulty of playing in large venue like the Alamodome.
Michigan made just 25 percent of its outside shots, while Loyola managed only a dismal 10 percent from beyond the arc. In a game where neither team scored 70 points or shot 45 percent from the field, Michigan found ways to win.
The Wolverines earned extra possessions on both ends of the floor. Michigan nabbed 11 offensive rebounds, leading to crucial scoring opportunities. On the defensive end, the Wolverines forced 17 Loyola turnovers. That many empty trips doomed the usually efficient Ramblers offense.
3. Loyola Chicago could make another run next year
Despite Sister Jean’s prayers on Easter Weekend, Loyola Chicago’s Cinderella bid finally came to a close. For a team that was barely on the bubble before winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, the Ramblers represented themselves more than admirably in the NCAA Tournament.
Porter Moser, who figures to be in line for a new job or a raise, had the Ramblers playing some of the smartest, most patient basketball in the nation.
With three starters returning, including conference player of the year Clayton Custer, the Ramblers may not be done playing Cinderella. Not every program who makes a magical run in March can become the next Gonzaga, but the Zags’ fellow Jesuit school in Chicago will make their best effort to make noise in the Big Dance again soon.
4. Villanova shoots their way to the final
For the second time in three years, Villanova strolled into the national semifinals and picked apart a quality opponent. In 2016, the Wildcats made 11 threes in a 45-point win over Buddy Hield and Oklahoma.
This year’s Cats put that shooting performance to shame, hitting 18 of 40 from outside in big win over Kansas. Villanova tied the Final Four record for 3-pointers in a game. This hot shooting performance came on the night Villanova set the NCAA single season record for threes made by a team. Seven Wildcats made a three on Saturday night, with six knocking down more than one.
Needless to say, the Wildcats are fully capable of shooting their way to a championship.
5. Kansas destroyed by a taste of its own medicine
This season, Kansas had a problem with an overreliance on the outside shot and too few trips to the free throw line. Only three Division I teams scored a lower percentage of their points from the foul line than Kansas, while the Jayhawks shot over 40 percent from outside as a team.
Instead, it was Villanova spreading the floor and hitting threes on Saturday night. The Wildcats made 18 of 40 threes, while only shooting 25 2-pointers and 7 free throws.
With the way Kansas played this season, Bill Self and company could have outdueled anyone on their best night. On Saturday however, Kansas was out of sync and ran into a Villanova buzzsaw in San Antonio.
6. Big Ten has chance for first championship since 2000
We’ll see two of America’s best coached and hottest teams square off Monday night with a title on the line. If Michigan could win, the championship would be coach John Beilein’s first, the Wolverines’ first since 1989, and the Big Ten’s first since 2000.
Meanwhile, Villanova won it all just two years ago. Jay Wright and several key players from this year’s team know what it takes to survive March Madness as victors.
The game will be decided by which team can work to get high percentage shots on offense, while forcing stops on the defensive end. The match-up of Moritz Wagner and Omari Spellman pits two mobile, rangy big men against one another. If either can step-up Monday night, they may propel their team to the title.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.