65 games over 13 days have left us with four teams remaining. The Final Four will includes three blue bloods and a Cinderella – only this time, it feels like the #11 seed has a legitimate shot to win it all. Let’s take an early look at the matchups.
Loyola Chicago Ramblers vs. Michigan Wolverines
A full write-up of this game will be forthcoming on this site, but I will try to contextualize this game a bit.
Loyola received no votes in either poll. That is forgivable. The Ramblers had become more competitive under Porter Moser, but hadn’t had a winning conference record since 2007 and hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1985.
Michigan was ranked #39 by the media and #38 by the coaches entering the season, behind Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Maryland. That’s a bit harder to forgive. Even understanding that the loss of three starters hurt the team from a continuity standpoint, the continued development of Moritz Wagner and addition of Charles Matthews should have big clues – not to mention senior leader Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
It is absolutely fitting that this is the first game of the national semifinals, because it is undoubtedly the undercard. For a Chicago native like myself, this is once-in-a-lifetime matchup that I am very much looking forward to watching… there’s just no way you can put it ahead of Villanova/Kansas.
Villanova Wildcats vs. Kansas Jayhawks
Villanova, who played the underdog for so long, now finds themselves the favorite against an incredibly resilient Kansas team. On many levels, Villanova represents the epitome of success in the “big money” NCAA: Landing blue-chip recruits with a desire to stay multiple years without a whiff of scandal era. Michigan has done this too, but their record of success is far more recent, and they don’t have a national championship. Jay Wright has built a brand with staying power beyond the NCAA/NBA Draft age reckoning, which you certainly couldn’t say about a program like Louisville.
Kansas, by way of saving America from having to endure a final stop on the Grayson Allen “I’m not going to apologize” tour, gets to play the underdog in San Antonio. Under Bill Self, Kansas has mixed the four-year player with the one-and-done to great effect, though in March it’s typically the older guys that lead the way. Their success in the regular season has been consistently overshadowed by stunted postseasons, though playing as a one-seeded underdog feels like a great metaphor for this team.
Is this among the best NCAA tournaments of all time? It may be best to reserve judgement for another week. Much of the madness has been contained in the South Region, though Michigan’s buzzer beater to beat Houston and Kansas’ back-and-forth with Duke earlier tonight stand out as memorable moments from elsewhere in the bracket. As to how this tournament will be remembered, so much is riding on Loyola’s matchup with Michigan. Will they be a footnote to greatness, like George Mason in 2006, or will they seize one of the most wide-open years in college basketball for one of the most shocking and improbable championships in sport’s history? I cannot wait for next weekend.