The 2018 Final Four starts on Saturday, and after a thrilling tournament, only three games are left to decide the national champion. There's two No. 1 seeds in Villanova and Kansas, who face off in the day's second game. And then there's No. 3 Michigan against the Cinderella team from Loyola-Chicago. It's been an exciting few weeks of outstanding basketball, and this weekend should be even more enjoyable.
Below is a preview of the two games, as well as a few players who could make a big splash.
The Cinderella story of the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers will continue into the Final Four, after a string of incredible upsets. The Ramblers had a bunch of narrow victories to start the tournament. The team began the tournament with a 64-62 victory over No. 6 Miami. A three-pointer by forward Donte Ingram gave Loyola-Chicago the cushion with almost no time left on the clock for Miami.
In the second round, Loyola would once again need a shot in the final seconds to win. This time, though, it was guard Clayton Custer who capitalized. His shot got a lucky bounce off the backboard and rim and went in with 3.6 seconds left, lifting the Ramblers over No. 3 Tennessee.
The Ramblers would move on to the Sweet Sixteen to take on the Nevada Wolf Pack, who overcame a 22 point deficit against No. 2 Cincinnati in the previous round. For the third consecutive game, a Rambler would come up clutch in the final seconds. Forward Marques Townes hit a three-point shot off a Custer assist to put the game out of reach. In the Elite Eight, Loyola finally had an easy game. Led by Ben Richardson and his twenty-three points, the Loyola cruised to a 16 point victory over Kansas State and rambled on to the Final Four.
Many consider the core of Loyola-Chicago’s tournament run to be 98-year-old old nun Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt, who has attended all of the team’s March Madness games and become an international sensation. Sister Jean, coach Porter Moser, and the Ramblers have a solid chance of reaching the title game this year, but they will have to get past Michigan, who have exhibited talent throughout the tournament.
Player to Watch: Clayton Custer
Custer has been playing high-quality basketball throughout the tournament this year, and has come up big in crunch time when Loyola has needed it. He was named the Missouri Valley Player of the Year, and has averaged 11.5 points during the tournament. With Loyola’s Cinderella tournament run, Custer and his teammates have gained well-deserved attention. As the starting point guard for the Ramblers, Custer will need to use his scoring ability and find his talented teammates for open looks while facing Michigan.
Michigan isn't going to win the battle for national attention over Cinderella Loyola-Chicago, but the Wolverines have a good chance of beating them in their Final Four matchup on March 31.
The team’s tournament run began in Wichita, Kansas in the first round. With 31 combined points by guards Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Charles Matthews, Michigan easily defeated Montana 61-47. Standing in the way in the second round, though, was Houston.
The final seconds provided one of the most memorable moments of the entire tournament, as Jordan Poole, a freshman guard for Michigan, sealed the game with a buzzer-beating three-pointer to win 64-63. Poole’s shot was almost identical to a a buzzer-beater he made in high school. The efforts by Michigan on that final play would lift them to the Sweet Sixteen to take on Texas A&M, who were fresh off a shocking upset over North Carolina.
The dominance the Aggies displayed against North Carolina did not continue against Michigan. The Wolverines obliterated their opponent in all phases of the game, shooting almost 62%, making 14 shots from beyond the arc, and forcing 14 total turnovers in the 99-72 victory. Abdur-Rahkman once again had a productive game, as he scored 24 points followed by seven assists and five rebounds. Forward Moritz Wagner also had a big impact by putting up 21 points and two steals.
The most recent game for Michigan was against No. 9 Florida State, whose past two NCAA Tournament games coming into the matchup with Michigan were major upsets (Xavier in the second round, Gonzaga in Sweet Sixteen). The Elite Eight matchup was close, but the Wolverines finished the Seminoles off 58-54. Now, they enter their Final Four date with Loyola-Chicago on a roll, and are going to need to be prepared for every aspect the Ramblers bring to table.
Player to Watch: Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman
Abdur-Rahkman has been a reliable threat for Michigan during the four-year span of his collegiate career, and has played well throughout this year’s NCAA Tournament. He has averaged 12.8 points per game this season, and 14 points per game during his team’s run in March Madness. Along with Matthews, this guard duo provides two active scorers who are hard to guard. Michigan faces a similar backcourt in Loyola-Chicago, with Custer and Richardson. Defense will be key for Abdur-Rahkman in the Final Four matchup, as he looks to disrupt the chemistry of Custer and Richardson, who have been teammates since third grade. Look for Michigan coach John Beilein to use Abdur-Rahkman as a major asset.
Coming off a narrow overtime win over Duke, Kansas will have to be on its game for their Final Four matchup with Villanova. High performances from the trio of playmaking guards, Devonte’ Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and Malik Newman, will be needed as the Jayhawks look to reach the title game for the first time since 2012. Kansas, as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, was the heavy favorite in its first round game against Penn. Having the advantage in most categories, such as rebounding, shooting percentage, and steals, ultimately helped the Jayhawks to victory, 76-60. Devonte’ Graham shot 9-for-24 in the game, finishing with 29 points.
The next game would be against Seton Hall from the Big East. Seton Hall's Angel Delgado dominated Kansas throughout the game, scoring 24 points and pulling down 23 rebounds. A high-scoring performance by Newman (28 points) and a late game three-pointer by Mykhailiuk helped stop Seton Hall’s comeback attempt, and the Jayhawks moved on to the Sweet Sixteen with an 83-79 win.
In the next game, Kansas took on Clemson, and for the second straight game the Jayhawks won by four-point margin and prevented a late comeback. A double-double by sophomore forward Udoka Azubuike made a huge difference, and Kansas would advance to face Duke in the Elite Eight.
This matchup turned out to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament, as the final seconds of regulation came down to a defensive stop for the Jayhawks. Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen took the potential game-winner, which rolled out of the basket twice in the final seconds. The Jayhawks took over in the final minute of overtime, and were led throughout the entire game by Newman, who scored 32 points.
The talented Wildcats will be the biggest challenge Kansas faces all year, though. Villanova has many assets to defend, including AP Player of the Year Jalen Brunson. Expect Kansas to look to its entire lineup for contributions during the game.
Player to Watch: Devonte’ Graham
Graham was named this year’s Big 12 Player of the Year, and with good reason. The guard has been a major factor to the team's 31-7 record and tournament success. In fact, he has averaged 16 points during the tournament. The Jayhawks have lots of talent to utilize, and Graham leads the way. He will look to finish his senior campaign off strong and will have the focus of many at the Alamodome.
The 2018 NCAA Tournament run of Villanova has been a rather easy and productive one. The closest a team has come to beating them was 12 points, in the 90-78 Elite Eight win over West Virginia and the 71-59 Sweet Sixteen victory over Texas Tech.
Villanova’s most lopsided win of the tournament, though, was against No. 16 Radford. The Highlanders were coming off a First Four win over LIU-Brooklyn, but never stood out over the Wildcats. All five starters and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who came off the bench, had double figures in points. Leading the team was Brunson, who shot 7-for-9 and had 16 points.
The team’s 87-61 domination of Radford earned them a spot in the second round, where they beat Alabama 81-58. Alabama’s Collin Sexton put up 17 points, but it wasn’t enough to hold off the Wildcats. Villanova guard Mikal Bridges hit five three-pointers during the game and led the team with 23 points.
The East Regional Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games were another breeze for the Wildcats. They got past West Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen, led by Brunson’s 27 points. Next, they advanced past Texas Tech with a big performance, once again, by Brunson, and also some major contributions by Donte DiVincenzo and a double-double for Eric Paschall.
Now, the Wildcats will have to get past Kansas, led by Graham, in a game that could come down to the wire. Villanova may look towards the three-point game, something they specialize in, for help against the Jayhawks.
Player to Watch: Donte DiVincenzo
DiVincenzo hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of his teammates, such as Bridges and Brunson, but he does have the ability to make plays on the floor. The redshirt sophomore shooting guard hasn’t started any of the four NCAA Tournament games Villanova has played in this year, and yet he still averages 11 points coming off the bench. DiVincenzo’s ability is spread all around the court, including the capability of making three-point shots, delivering quality passes, and even pulling down rebounds at only 6'5". Expect Villanova head coach Jay Wright to continue to use DiVincenzo as a weapon while his team looks to cut down the net in San Antonio.
Photographs (from top): Ronald Martinez/Getty Images (2); Ezra Shaw/Getty Images; Streeter Lecka/Getty Images; Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images