Final Four Game Preview
All week long, the Michigan-Loyola game has been very well dissected by various media sources. The analysis has been excellent. Most of you have probably googled or whatever and read tons of previews. So, a small write-up is in order and by now most anything would be repetitive.
First, it is a small blessing that Kansas and Villanova are going toe to toe: one stays and one goes. Villanova is a very strong candidate for national champion. Jay Wright, as mentioned about a month ago, is a serious, scientific, driven type; one could say a cutting edge prototype coach. He has plenty of talent and that team plays smart and hard. Wright, like about any current D-1 team that goes far into the tournament, values guards. He has them. Villanova plays physical inside, takes no prisoners, just a tough team to beat. This is not a Jesuit school, but is a highly respected eastern academic institute founded by the Augustine’s in the mid 1800’s.
Villanova is tough to beat but so is Kansas. About six weeks ago, similar to Kentucky, this team did not look near final four ready. But with blue bloods who have talent, time not only heals but pushes top talent to improvement. Bill Self is one of the most consistent coaches in college ball. Bill Self, late of Illinois, a university that has fired, lost, or run off successful guys like not only Self, but also Kruger, Weber, and Groce.
From the very start, my take was Villanova had the best shot, far greater than Virginia.
Loyola of Chicago, one of two non-power schools to make the final four. Duke is gone, North Carolina is gone, UCLA was gone, gone quick, and Kentucky is gone. I still remember watching in Athens, Ohio the Loyola upset of two time national champion Cincinnati in 1963.
Michigan is the other non-power school to make the final four. Although, it is accurate to state no one that has followed college basketball should be surprised. Few teams, even good teams, excluding the blue bloods listed above, have earned a way into the final four more than one time per decade. Villanova appears to be a new blue blood, at least as long as jay Wright remains..
Both games are quite intriguing: the bad boys, both number one seeds, with the physical talent going in one game and the “other guys” in the other game.
There are clearly similarities between Loyola and Michigan. Both have had excellent seasons defensively; both are feel good stories; both can turn a game into a close, tough, grind it out, mind over matter affair (mental toughness and not folding during a downturn in a game), and neither team is limited to a small core of players to score (read distributed scoring by an offense intended to spread and get an open shot).
Loyola probably has a better offensive team at this juncture in time. The Ramblers are superior at hitting threes. Michigan can in selected games be superior, or close to abysmal. Both teams understand that snoozing for just a split second or being inferior at closing out can be fatal in this game. My fear is that Michigan may have to learn the hard way early, the perimeter defense must be strong and persistent. It will come down to initial effort and eventual finishing for Michigan. It will also come down to offensive options.
Much has been made of the interior match-up of Michigan’s Moe Wagner and Loyola freshman big man Kameron Krutwig. Loyola may very well try to take advantage of Moe’s known commodity of picking up early cheap fouls and the official’s subliminal trigger to willingly call cheap stuff on Moe. As Beilein says- no stupid fouls, just keep your hands off. The common observation is that Coach Beilein will take Moe out after one foul. Then Jon Teske actually gives Michigan a better inside defense, but takes away what may be Michigan’s best offensive option: moving Moe around, forcing Krutwig to chase.
Krutwig or not, the straw that stirs Loyola is Clayton Custer. An guard on him must be dedicated to making his experience difficult, even second on both sides of the court. But the beauty of Loyola is spreading the wealth. Still, Custer is the banker.
Loyola’s success is not in the hands of any one player. Perhaps, Michigan can hurdle Loyola best if Wagner comes out and hits his options. Personally, cross it up some and work Moe inside first, get a couple of early points, stay off the fouls even if an easy bucket by the opposition must be sacrificed. Get the timing on the screens correct.
If Wagner cannot get it done, then Michigan seems to have two other good options. First, Michigan has played very good defenses inside and has had only mild success with the middle option off the high screen. MAAR, Simpson, and Matthews will all try the middle. If Michigan can hit the layups, good things will follow. The second option is turn the scoring emphasis over to Matthews, he has the ability to get shots off on anyone, and lately the shots have been falling more and more. If everything clicks, we all hopefully see a wide open Duncan Robinson fire a three before the defense closes.
Michigan’s bench needs to contribute more than in recent games. Robinson has been more dependable than freshman Livers, not a real surprise in a big stage situation. But Livers and Poole may both grab a couple of moments that pushes Michigan to the top. In a game like this, Poole has proved one never knows. Hopefully, Michigan has a couple of late game plays ready, as everyone on the planet knows the option that beat Houston.
Michigan needs to resist the temptation of getting into a stagnant offense where the late low percentage three shot becomes the offensive option. This trend of going four or five minutes of gaining nothing from the offense has persisted more than any recent Beilein Michigan team.
It appears that the biggest difference in the offensive approaches is that Loyola uses the pass as the preferred option to break down the defense, frequently going most of the shot clock and being patient and good enough to make the one final pass that finally gets the defense chasing and provide the wide open shot. Michigan appears to rely more on the dribble to start basically the same process.
Hopefully, Coach Beilein has addressed the sloppy on-handed soft passes directly into the passing lanes that have resulted in several bad turnovers during this run. Coach has done a masterful job of game preparation with the guys. I suspect more than late nights, but almost total time has been given to putting everything he has throughout this entire tourney run. The players clearly know and appreciate what he has done to get them to this point.
Both Michigan and Loyola deserve to be in this match-up, the same can be said for Kansas and Villanova. The mindset and style of both Loyola and Michigan should make for a tough, mentally exhausting forty minutes that calls for total intensity, focus, and some shots to fall.
Hopefully, Michigan has practiced options that work for the end game. No doubt Loyola saw how Florida State made mistakes in the end game and the Ramblers will not follow that route. The ball will be funneled to Simpson or worked into a corner to a big guy that is instantly trapped. Michigan must come up with other remedies. Maybe bringing up Wagner to receive a high pass in the middle is an option. Moe tends to hit more than he misses in the clutch. Michigan is horrible at the front end of the one and one. MAAR has regressed in foul shooting down the stretch, but in the one situation needed, I still believe he is a good bet.
The Missouri Valley has provided great basketball over many decades. Loyola has only lost five games; this is a for real team on a monster roll, as is Michigan. May the force be with the Wolverines.