Can the Ramblers, returning to the Final Four for the first time since they won the national title in 1963, take down the Wolverines?
The Final Four is finally set. After two weeks, 60 games, and several buzzer beaters, only four teams remain to vie for the national title. Villanova, Kansas, Michigan, and Loyola-Chicago are heading to San Antonio to play the final three games of the season and crown a champion.
The Wolverines and Ramblers will face off Saturday for only the fourth time ever and for the first time since 1969. Loyola-Chicago won that the meeting 112-110, but Michigan took the first two, giving the Wolverines a 2-1 series lead. But those games were played 50-plus years ago, so none of that matters. Both of these teams are strong enough to cut down the nets Monday night, but first, they have to go through each other.
How They Got Here
Michigan: Things started out slowly for Michigan. The Wolverines won handily against Montana, but only because their defense smothered the Grizzlies and held them to 47 points. They then needed an off-balance buzzer-beater from a freshman averaging 6.0 points per game to take down Houston. Then the floodgates opened. Michigan exploded for 99 points in a 27-point slaughter of Texas A&M. The rout was surprising and impressive not only because the Wolverines had combined for only 125 points in their previous two games, but also because the Aggies were coming off a 21-point blowout of 2-seed North Carolina.
In the Elite Eight, the offense disappeared again, but the defense remained asphyxiating, and John Beilein’s squad felt in control most of the contest. They felt so much in control that Leonard Hamilton had his team quit with 12 seconds left even though the Seminoles were only down four points. Michigan held Florida State to just 54 points, 31.4 percent from the floor, and 23.5 percent from deep. Perhaps, after watching his team miss 35 of its 51 shots, Hamilton knew there was no way his team could make enough baskets to steal a last-second upset. Either way, the Wolverines enter the Final Four riding a 13-game win streak and look capable of cutting down the nets Monday night in San Antonio.
Loyola-Chicago: Some might say the Ramblers benefitted from an easy path out of their region. Those people are right. Porter Moser’s squad played a 6-seed, 3-seed, 7-seed, and 9-seed to reach the Final Four while the stalwarts of the region — Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Cincinnati — all fell. However, that shouldn’t diminish what Loyola-Chicago has accomplished so far and what it still could accomplish this weekend. The Ramblers are currently ranked 30th in overall efficiency, 18th in defensive efficiency, and 60th in offensive efficiency by KenPom. This team may be an 11-seed hailing from a mid-major conference, but Loyola-Chicago is legitimately good.
The Ramblers showed just how good they can be during their Elite Eight beatdown of Kansas State. After winning its first three games by a combined four points (twice on last-second, game-winning shots), Loyola-Chicago blew the doors off the Wildcats, beating them by 16 points and seizing total control of the game within the first five minutes. Despite Kansas State being top-25 in defensive efficiency and top-50 in scoring defense, the Ramblers dropped 78 points and shot 57.4 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from beyond the arc. Loyola’s run thus far has exemplified its ability to hang with talented teams, perform in the clutch, and, when things are clicking, dominate. The Ramblers aren’t a Cinderella. They’re a legitimate title threat and always have been.
Moritz Wagner, Forward, Michigan: Wagner has been a do-it-all kind of player for Michigan this season. The 6-foot-11 German shoots 52.4 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from beyond the arc; he averages 6.9 rebounds per game, 1.4 of which are offensive; and although he’s no block machine (0.5 per game), he has shown the ability to protect the rim and the post on the defensive end.
Against Texas A&M, the one game during the tournament during which the Wolverines’ offense clicked, Wagner went for 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the floor and 3-for-3 from deep. To get the offense flowing, Michigan needs Wagner to play at the top of his game. As the only offensive threat inside, when Wagner is able to score from the post, it creates open shots on the perimeter for Michigan’s many guards. That in turn forces defenders out of the interior, opening up space for those same guards to drive to the basket. Once that happens, Wagner can rotate to the perimeter himself, serving as an outside shooter to whom the ball can be kicked after a drive forces a defender to recover toward the hoop and away from Wagner.
This clever ball movement makes the Michigan offense scary, and it all starts with Wagner doing work on the inside. He’ll likely spend most of the game being guarded by the Ramblers’ 6-foot-9 center Cameron Krutwig. Wagner is two inches taller than Krutwig and an NBA prospect. If he can take advantage of that matchup and score some buckets early, the Wolverines offense should be off to the races.
Clayton Custer, Guard, Loyola-Chicago: Custer is the commander of the Ramblers’ offense. The redshirt junior guard and former Iowa State Cyclone leads the team with 13.2 points and 4.2 assists per game and he does it extremely efficiently. Custer shoots 52.7 percent from the field and an astonishing 45.4 percent from three. A large part of that impressive percentage comes from the fact that Custer is particularly picky about his three-pointer field goal attempts — he has attempted only 130 so far this season or 4.1 per game — but that doesn’t diminish the fact that when he does put one up, there is almost a 50-50 chance the ball goes through the hoop.
Custer is also a major contributor to Loyola-Chicago’s top-tier defense. Custer, like his teammates, has committed 100 percent to his head coach’s aggressive man-to-man defense despite being a former high three-star recruit that played for a major-conference program. Custer’s athleticism allows him to stay in front of the opponent’s best guards without fouling (he averages just 1.7 personal fouls per game) and his quick hands have helped him lead the team with 1.5 steals per game.
The Ramblers win games thanks to a combination of constricting defense and timely, efficient offense, and Custer is crucial to the success of both of those enterprises. Michigan generates most of its points through its guards. Custer will rotate between them all as Loyola-Chicago’s defenses switches through screens, and he has the ability to stifle all of the Wolverine’s big hitters throughout the contest. More important, though, is Custer finding a way to generate offense against Michigan’s top-five defense. The Ramblers have four other double-digit scorers on the roster, but Custer is the most important factor in generating consistent, clean offensive opportunities.
How Michigan Wins
It starts with the defense. Loyola-Chicago has shown on multiple occasions during this tournament — against Miami (48th in defensive efficiency), Tennessee (sixth), and Kansas State (21st) — that it can score on top-flight defenses. The Wolverines rank fourth in the defensive efficiency, so, technically speaking, this is the best defense the Ramblers have faced yet. But Michigan has to prove it.
Historically, under John Beilein, the Wolverines have been not so spectacular at defense. Sometimes they have been okay at defense, but they have never been great at defense. This year is different, though. At the beginning of the year, Beilein divested himself from most of the defensive decisions, instead opting to hand the reins to assistant Luke Yaklich. That decision paid massive dividends, and Michigan’s strong defense has been on full display during the tournament, during which it is allowing a measly 59.0 points per game. With an offense that can lapse at times throughout a game, it is imperative that the Wolverines maintain the elite level of defense they brought to the first two weeks of the tourney.
Offensively, Wagner has the potential to have his way inside against Krutwig. He is two inches taller, significantly more athletic, and vastly more skilled. If Wagner can get hot in the paint, the Michigan offense could have an A&M-like day as opposed to a Houston or Florida State-like day. And if the Wolverines offense is anything close to what it was against Aggies in the Sweet Sixteen, it is extremely unlikely that the Ramblers will keep pace and Michigan will romp its way to the national title game.
How Loyola-Chicago Wins
The Ramblers have to lock down Michigan’s shooters. The Wolverines aren’t uber efficient from distance (they shoot 36.6 percent from beyond the arc), but they sure do like to chuck ‘em up. Michigan has attempted the 10th-most three-pointers in the country. The Wolverines guards aren’t afraid to put up shots, and if Loyola-Chicago’s guards can’t stay in front of them and allow them open looks, there’s a far better chance those shots fall and this game gets out of hand quickly.
Fortunately, the Ramblers have shown proficiency at frustrating opponents’ long-range shots. Teams are shooting 29.9 percent from deep against the Ramblers during the tournament. By preventing Michigan from racking up threes, Loyola-Chicago can make the game a lot more manageable for its offense, even if the Wolverines have their way inside.
Speaking of inside, it would be particularly useful if Krutwig, with some help from forward Aundre Jackson, could prevent Wagner from having a 20-plus-point game by getting basket after basket in the paint. This will be tough, but it is doable if he can use his weight advantage to keep Wagner off-balance.
But even if they can slow down the Wolverines, the Ramblers — stay with me here — will need to score points to win. It’s a novel concept, I know, but it’s true. Loyola-Chicago cannot win if Michigan holds it to just 40 points. The Ramblers don’t need to dice up the Wolverines for 78 points and a 57.4 shooting percentage like they did against Kansas State. They do need to find a way to create penetration. That will open up the perimeter by forcing Michigan to remain honest. If Custer, Donte Ingram, and Marques Townes can get some open looks on the outside and be strong to the rim, the Ramblers will have a real shot to head to the title game.
I would very much like to say that I think Loyola-Chicago is going to win this one and face Villanova or Kansas Monday night in the title game. The Ramblers are certainly capable of pulling off the upset, but my money is on Michigan.
This game is going to be extremely slow-paced (Michigan ranks 326th in adjusted tempo and Loyola-Chicago ranks 315th), and every possession is going to matter. The Ramblers have been able to frustrate every opponent they have faced so far and keep games close so they have an opportunity to win at the end. But they haven’t yet had to contend with a forward like Wagner that can stretch the floor.
They don’t have a guard that is likely to shut him down consistently on the perimeter, and Krutwig is not athletic enough to follow him out there. He’s a matchup nightmare for Loyola-Chicago, and, although the game will be close, that means that the Wolverines are more likely than not to head to their second title game in six years .
Michigan wins, 65-61.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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