Final 4 bold picks: More madness for Loyola-Chicago?
Three bluebloods and a Cinderella will tip off Saturday in the Final Four. If the first two weekends of this NCAA tournament tell us anything, it’s that going off logic (ahem, Virginia) won’t pan out well for bracket forecasting.
Going with your gut — or Sister Jean — offers better odds.
Expecting a Villanova vs. Michigan national championship, in which the favored Wildcats cut down the nets, is a smart projection. But it is March Madness, after all.
Five days from tip-off in San Antonio, here are five predictions you wouldn’t expect:
1. A fifth hero will step into the spotlight for Loyola-Chicago against Michigan
A remarkable part of the Ramblers’ thrilling Cinderella run has been the hot shooting of a different player in each of the team’s bracket-busting tournament wins. Three of those four included game-winners in the closing seconds. Against Miami, it was Donte Ingram’s buzzer-beater. Against Tennessee, it was Clayton Custer’s rim-rattling jumper with three seconds left. Against Nevada, it was Marques Townes’ pump-fake three-pointer with six seconds left. Then, in the Elite Eight, Ben Richardson led the way with 23 points off of six three-pointers against Kansas State.
Loyola-Chicago has not run out of players who can add to the One Shining Moment reel. The Ramblers’ big man, 6-9 freshman Cameron Krutwig, could be the unsung hero against Michigan with his defense and efficiency in the paint. His passing and influence on the inside-out game have been invaluable. There also are two guys off the bench, Aundre Jackson and Lucas Williamson, who could become March stars. Jackson, a sixth man who averages 11 points a game, might be the best bet. And Williamson, a freshman guard who plays 20 minutes a game and has shown flashes of brilliance, also could shine.
2. Kansas will pull off the ‘upset’ of ’Nova in battle of No. 1s
While it’s difficult to look at the Jayhawks — a top seed that just survived the tournament’s toughest region by dispatching Duke — as an underdog, Villanova is the best team in America right now. It starts with national player of the year Jalen Brunson. Villanova also has paired the nation’s best offense with an elite defense (see the 71-59 win against Texas Tech in the Elite Eight).
But after losing in the Elite Eight the previous two seasons, the Jayhawks finally got over the hump to reach the Final Four and they are playing their best basketball. KU proved it can come up big in crucial situations against Duke in the Elite Eight, and Bill Self’s team seems to be playing with a singular, winning focus.
3. Malik Newman will torch Villanova and be the difference-maker
Malik Newman’s coming-out party has helped a Kansas team that won the Big 12 for a 14th consecutive time become even better. His 32 points in the win against Duke show how he’s found a comfort zone in this perimeter-oriented offense in which Big 12 player of the year Graham and veteran sharpshooter Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk are the go-to players. Newman’s 13 overtime points against Duke stand as one of the greatest performances of this tournament. If KU upends ’Nova, Newman will be a lightning rod in that effort.
4. A team from the left side of the bracket wins it all
Here’s how Michigan can beat one of the No. 1s: Coach John Beilein has one of his best defensive teams and that could disrupt the potent offenses of Kansas and Villanova as they did against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. They also have athletic, hard-nosed guards who could contain Brunson or Devonte’ Graham perhaps better than any team in the tournament. And if the Wolverines play offense like they did against Texas A&M, they can beat anybody.
And here’s how Loyola can beat one of the No. 1s: The Ramblers are undoubtedly the most unique team in this tournament and are deceptively quick if you haven’t game-planned for them well. There’s high praise for this team’s spread-out offense that thrives on the extra pass, but there are an array of playmakers and big shot-makers who can destroy another team’s momentum surges. Plus, coach Porter Moser has one of the best defenses in the country, which is saying quite a bit about the system based on this team’s lack of athleticism. Loyola has the personnel to defend Kansas, a ball-pick-heavy offense, well.
5. The Most Outstanding Player won’t be who you expect
Editor’s Note: Sister Jean is not an option here. Gauging the history of the tournament’s MOP award winners, it’s often an unexpected X-Factor player — not a future NBA star or the team’s best player — who excels on college hoops’ grandest stage. Louisville’s Luke Hancock in 2013 and Duke’s Tyus Jones in 2016 are prime examples.
An unexpected MOP from each team this year:
Villanova: Donte DiVincenzo.
Kansas: Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk.
Michigan: Zavier Simpson.
Loyola-Chicago: Donte Ingram.