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NCAA Tournament Preview: #3 Michigan Wolverines vs. #11 Loyola Chicago Ramblers

The Wolverines have an opportunity to end Cinderella’s run and reach the National Championship game for the second time under John Beilein.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Michigan vs Florida State Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Final Four is finally here and it’s now officially time for some championship basketball. This year’s Final Four features a pair of intriguing matchups, including the Big Ten’s hottest team against this year’s Cinderella.

The Michigan Wolverines will look to end the Cinderella, feel-good story known as Loyola Chicago — or should I say Sister Jean since people probably recognize her more than any of the Ramblers’ players — on Saturday night. The Wolverines’ path to the title game has been paved with some easier matchups, and while Loyola Chicago is another lower seed, don’t count this one in the win column just yet.

Loyola enters this matchup with wins in 21 of their last 22 games, including KenPom Top 25 victories over Tennessee and Nevada during this NCAA Tournament run. Michigan on the other hand has also been on fire, currently sitting on a 13-game winning streak. So this matchup truly features two of the games hottest teams and should make for an entertaining matchup.

Before this one tips later tonight, let’s take a look at a few key areas that could determine who will be dancing on to Monday night’s National Championship game.

#3 Michigan vs. #11 Loyola Chicago

  • Time/TV: 6:09PM ET/TBS
  • KenPom Spread: Michigan (-4.5)

1) How will Michigan’s defense play against a team that can actually hit shots from outside?

For the first time this NCAA Tournament, Michigan will face an opponent that you actually have to respect from behind the arc. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh to say since Houston had some three-point weapons, but these Ramblers are still going to be a harder matchup in that area.

Loyola enters this matchup as one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, hitting 40 percent of their shots from three-point range — which ranks 15th nationally. Up until this point in the tournament, the Wolverines haven’t really had to worry about their opponents hitting shots from outside. Houston was decent — ranking 32nd in the country — but the other three opponents were brutal from outside. All of them ranked in the bottom half nationally.

Michigan is one of the nation’s best teams defensively, and I’m sure they’ll be ready for this challenge. This will be a much different type of game than what they’ve faced so far this NCAA Tournament so how the Wolverines adjust will be key.

Loyola is shooting extremely well from outside during the tournament — making 30-of-72 three-point attempts — so the Wolverines better be ready for that feature in their game. Upsets happen when underdogs get hot from outside so Michigan can’t let that happen tonight.

2) Which Michigan will we see?

This key is pretty straightforward and ultimately could be the deciding factor in this game. If Michigan brings its A-game then Loyola doesn’t stand much of a chance, but if they struggle offensively again then they’ll be on upset alert.

I think it’s fair to say Michigan hasn’t really played a good game in three of their four NCAA Tournament tilts. At least you can say that offensively. The Wolverines were an abysmal 17-for-68 from three-point range in three of their four tournament games prior to the Final Four. The only game where they were on was against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 when they hit 14-of-24 shots from outside the arc, and by no surprise they ran the Aggies off the floor in a 27-point victory. So if the Wolverines are on from outside then they’ll cruise in this game too.

Like Michigan, Loyola is one of the best defensive teams statistically, ranking fifth in the country in points allowed at 62.4 points per game. Part of that is because they bleed the shot clock when they’re on offense, and reduce the opponents’ number of offensive possessions. So with that being said, there’s even more importance on Michigan making the most out of their scoring chances.

If the Wolverines hit their shots from outside like they are capable of doing, then I believe they’ll cruise. However, they could be in trouble if they struggle to make their open looks from behind the arc.

3) How will these two teams handle the big stage of the Final Four?

This key really has nothing to do with the X’s and O’s but simply with who’s more mentally strong. This is something I personally can’t predict without knowing these players on a more personal level, but I’ll at least try to make sense of it.

When you make it this far into the tournament, there’s simply more at stake. There’s more pressure to perform and obviously there’s more attention on you. Handling that kind of pressure is something that sometimes is forgotten, but it’s definitely a factor when you’re talking about 18-21 year old kids.

Michigan has more experience playing in the bright lights and under a national microscope. However, the Wolverines are also under more pressure in my opinion because they are supposed to win this game. Michigan has more to lose than Loyola, who some would say should just be happy they’ve made it this far. That kind of pressure sometimes can throw a team off, and help the underdog steal a win.

There’s no real way we can measure how much of a factor the pressure of playing in the Final Four will be in this game. But this isn’t something I’ve seen talked about a bunch this week and felt it should be brought up. Who do you trust to make a buzzer beater or game-clinching free throw in the final seconds? That’s something we’ll potentially find out on Saturday.

Overall

Michigan should win this game. We might as well call the Final Four midnight because that’s normally where the Cinderella story comes to an end. However, this Loyola team isn’t you’re typical Cinderella story and certainly has the ability to knock off the Wolverines if things bounce their way. That means Michigan will have to struggle again on the offensive end and Loyola will have to take advantage of their offensive opportunities because frankly the Wolverines don’t allow a ton of them.

I like Loyola to make this a game and keep it close into the second half, but I don’t think they’ll have enough to crack this stingy Michigan defense. I also find it hard to believe the Wolverines will produce another dud of a performance from outside the arc. Those two factors add up to a Michigan victory and a date with either Kansas or Villanova on Monday night in San Antonio for all of the marbles.

  • Pick Against The Spread: Michigan