2018 Final Four Preview: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago

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The first game of this weekend’s Final Four will feature the an outsider that crashed the final weekend of the college basketball season: No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago taking on No. 3 seed Michigan. 

This is the first Final Four for Porter Moser and the second for John Beilein, but both, with a win, will be playing for their first national title on Monday night.

Here is everything you need to know about the Final Four opener:

THREE KEY MATCHUPS

1. WHAT DOES LOYOLA DO ABOUT MO WAGNER: Wagner is the ultimate mismatch for anyone that Michigan comes up against.

At 6-foot-10, Wagner is Michigan’s starting center, and this season, he really has embraced that role on both ends of the floor. Zavier Simpson has been influential in Michigan’s defensive renaissance, as has the fact that this Wolverine team is far more athletic than any John Beilein team of the past. We can’t dismiss the impact that defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich’s arrival has had, either, but Wagner’s emergence as an elite defensive rebounder has certainly played as big of a role as any. You can’t get stops if you can’t end possessions with a defensive rebound.

But it’s on the offensive end of the floor where he causes so many problems. The Dirk Nowitzki comparisons are probably unfair — you can’t just go around putting a borderline first round pick in the same conversation as an all-time great — but it’s easy to see why they are made. Both are German, both are really tall and both have the kind of guard skills that really tall people aren’t supposed to have. He makes threes. He puts the ball on the floor. He’s a pick-and-pop nightmare for defenses.

And when he gets hot, he changes everything.

How does Loyola, you know, keep him cold?

2. MICHIGAN’S DEFENSE AGAINST LOYOLA’S OFFENSE: I cannot make this point more emphatically: Michigan is a defensive monster. They all do things differently, but going strictly off of the numbers, the Wolverines are essentially the same as Virginia, Cincinnati and Texas Tech. They are teams that grind you down on the defensive end while doing just enough scoring to win basketball games.

How does Loyola deal with that?

Well, they just run their offense, I think.

The cliché is as old as time: Good offense beats good defense, and the best way to run good offense at the college level is to … run good offense. Loyola doesn’t really have any superstars. They don’t have a go-to guy the way that, say, Houston did. They have a bunch of dudes that can make shots and that understand how to execute what Porter Moser wants them to execute. I don’t know if teams that play a lot of iso-ball will be able to beat Michigan. Teams that run their stuff and get good shots out of their actions and counters probably can.

And for my money, that is where this game is going to be won or lost. Just how good will the shots be that Loyola is able to get?

3. WHO GUARDS CLAYTON CUSTER: Custer is the best player on this Michigan team, and while I know this is going to be contrary to everything I just said, but if Loyola gets to a point where they cannot actually get points off of their offense, Custer is the best bet to be able to create on his own.

Whether or not that will work is a different story, but he’s certainly good enough to carry them for stretches when those points may be harder to come by.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

THE BEST STORY LINE

Loyola is just the fourth No. 11-seed to play in the Final Four. LSU made it in 1986. George Mason got there in 2006. VCU arrived in 2011 after playing in the First Four. But the one thing that all three of those teams have in common is that they lost once they arrived in the final weekend of the college basketball season.

Loyola has a chance to make history. The lowest-seeded team to ever play for a national title is a No. 8-seed. Villanova cut down the nets in 1985, playing the perfect game in a win over Big East rival Georgetown. In 2011, No. 8-seed Butler dispatched that Cinderella VCU team to get to the national title game where they lost to UConn, while No. 8-seed Kentucky also lost to the Huskies, who won the national title as a No. 7-seed in 2014.

And rest assured, Loyola has a very real chance to make the impossible a reality. They don’t come with the glitz and the glamour of some of college basketball’s best programs, but what they do works. They defend hard, they execute offensively and they have a number of guys that can end your season on any given night. Donte Ingram hit a game-winner in the first round. Clayton Custer hit one in the second round. Marques Townes hit the winner in the Sweet 16. Ben Richardson’s career-high 23 points was the difference in the Elite Eight.

Oh, and they have Sister Jean.

How long will the slipper fit?

AND THE WINNER WILL BE …

Michigan. I just think that they are too good defensively, and I don’t think that Wagner is going to have another performance like the one he had against Florida State.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.