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.
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.