Sports

How each team truly became a Final Four team

Four teams are left standing. That’s it. The names of those that survived the madness of the first two weekends are mostly familiar — with one notable exception.

We know how they won the games that have them here, headed toward the Final Four. But what really got them here? What defines them? What made them? It’s time to find out the moments, characteristics — the “it” factor — that have Loyola-Chicago, Michigan and Kansas in the Final Four.

A big win and a bad loss lead to a run nobody will ever forget

On Dec. 6, Loyola-Chicago traveled to Gainesville to face a Florida squad that had entered the season as an SEC contender. In the PK80 tournament in Portland over Thanksgiving weekend, the Gators had topped Gonzaga in a wild double-overtime game and tussled with Duke in a three-point loss in the title game.

Florida had shooters and five-star kids and the hype Loyola-Chicago lacked — at least until now. But the Gators shot just 10 percent from the 3-point line against the Ramblers in a six-point loss in December. Porter Moser’s squad had won a true road game against a squad some had picked to win the SEC title.

Ten days later, they suffered a 17-point loss at UW-Milwaukee, a squad that finished 8-10 in the Horizon League and finished the season in the low 200s on KenPom.com. The Ramblers entered that game without top scorer Clayton Custer, who had suffered an ankle injury, and key defender and contributor Ben Richardson, who missed time with a hand injury.

Not only was the loss at UW-Milwaukee humbling for Moser’s team. It was also a critical experience for the players who would later contribute to Loyola-Chicago’s miraculous run to the Final Four, which culminated Saturday with a rout of Kansas State. Now, Loyola is headed to the school’s first trip to the national semifinals in more than 50 years.

Yes, the Ramblers were good enough to beat Florida on the road. But they also learned how far they could fall if they failed to play the team game that had fueled that win over Florida.

To reach its potential, Loyola-Chicago would need Marques Townes (crucial 3-pointer against Nevada late) and Aundre Jackson (double-digits in three of four NCAA tournament games) and Cameron Krutwig (15-for-27 in the NCAA tournament) and Donte Ingram (buzzer-beating game-winner against Miami in the opening round) to excel in adversity.

Richardson and Custer have been two key stars during this Final Four run. Richardson scored 23 points and recorded a 6-for-7 mark from beyond the arc in Saturday’s win over Kansas State. Custer hit the game-winner against Tennessee in the second round.

Earlier this season, the Ramblers finished 1-2 without Richardson and Custer.

But the remaining players on the roster — guys who have helped this team in the postseason — learned more about themselves and their significance during that stretch, as they were forced to adapt and mature.

Loyola-Chicago needed more from its rotation.

A road loss to UW-Milwaukee — days after a win over an SEC standout — was the moment that helped this team realize its full potential as a shorthanded Loyola-Chicago team was both humbled and invigorated.

They never lost another game by double digits. — Myron Medcalf

When these “junkyard dogs” grew teeth

Taped to a whiteboard at the front of Michigan’s locker after the Wolverine’s 58-54 win over Florida State to advance to the school’s first Final Four since 2013 was a grainy picture of a pit bull.

It’s on a regular piece of printer paper, and it’s been around the Wolverines’ locker room for a couple of year now. You’d easily miss it if you weren’t paying attention, but it’s not the size of the picture of the dog that matters, it’s the symbolism.

“Coach [John Beilein] is always on us about being dogs — junkyard dogs — and playing with those teeth, being tough and not fun to play against,” fifth-year senior guard/forward Duncan Robinson said of the picture. “That’s how we have to play to win.”

Leading up to Michigan’s bout with Florida State, it was actually the Seminoles who claimed the “junkyard dog” persona. And while the Seminoles proved yet again to be one of the NCAA tournament’s scrappiest and most aggressive defensive teams, Michigan showed just as much fight and dogged defense Saturday night.

“There is a false perception of Michigan that because we’ve got a bunch of kids that you love to — it’s easy to like. They’re great kids. They’re good students,” Beilein said Saturday. “Because of those things they think they’re not tough. They’ve been tough all year long. “The Big Ten is tough. You don’t go win 13 games in the Big Ten and win four games in four days in the Garden if you’re not tough.

“So they call themselves pit bulls. So they had junkyard dogs. Pit bulls that was a little bit of the pregame speech about the pit bulls, what we’re going to do, that we’re ready, we’re strong. We get into a fight, which is not a real fight, but a fight for a loose ball, that we were going to be like that. We had that dog in you that could get things done.”

People point to Michigan’s dreadful 61-52 loss to Northwestern on Feb. 6 as the turning point of the season. It seems fitting because it was indeed the Wolverines’ last loss of the season, but this angry, almost chaotic defensive style has been the norm for Michigan all season.

A program defined more by Beilein’s free-flowing, catch-and-shoot offensive team since he arrived in 2007, Michigan was quietly one of the Big Ten’s best defensive teams all year.

Michigan held teams in the 60s or less 28 times. Opponents have averaged 63.1 and 12.8 turnovers per game against the Wolverines, and there have been 14 times this season in which opponents failed to reach 40 percent shooting from the floor, including in five of the past seven games.

But Michigan’s defensive effort against Florida State was something Beilein would say was the best he’d seen all season. The Seminoles shot just 31.4 percent (16 of 51) on field goals, including going 4-for-17 from 3 (.235). Michigan forced 15 turnovers, blocked seven shots and came away with six steals.

Michigan dismantled FSU’s inside game by holding the Noles to shooting just 10-of-30 in the paint and held FSU to just two points in transition without allowing a transition field goal. FSU entered the game averaging 21 transition points per game in the tournament, the most by any team that reached the Sweet 16.

FSU had just five uncontested FG attempts, tied for the third-fewest such attempts by any team in an NCAA Tournament game since 2010.

In a game in which the Wolverines couldn’t buy a bucket themselves, they turned to their defense, a healthy part of their game that is starting to catch the nation’s attention and serves as a dangerous combination for a team with the ability to outshoot just about anyone in the country.

“The really good teams win in different ways,” Robinson said. “The shots aren’t always going to fall, but you can always count on your energy, your effort and your defense. That was the difference tonight.” — Edward Aschoff

The run you know is coming always comes

The ball went straight down — no arc, no angle — when Omari Spellman blocked an ill-advised layup attempt from Beetle Bolden midway through the second half of Villanova’s Sweet 16 victory over West Virginia. The Wildcats waste no time and no motion once they get rolling.

After his block, Spellman raced to the other end of the floor for a putback dunk that capped a two-minute, 11-0 run that erased any doubt that Villanova would have some say in who ends up cutting down the nets in San Antonio. Coach Jay Wright said he’s never sure when to expect his team will rip off one of the fatal spurts that have propelled it to a Final Four, but he’s confident that they have a couple more in them.

“I don’t know when it’s going to come,” Wright said after the win over West Virginia Friday night. “But I know it’s coming.”

Spellman, who has proved just as capable at spotting up for a corner 3 as he is at being a physically dominant force in the paint, is one of many versatile threats in the Villanova lineup that make those head-spinning, game-changing runs a regular occurrence. It is hard for opponents to prepare for Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and any of the other Wildcat players that can play the hero when needed. When all of them start to click together, it can feel downright impossible.

Villanova was faced with the pressure of the West Virginia press, the weight of being a No. 1-seed in a year full of upsets and a six-point second-half deficit when their run against the Mountaineers began. Wright, as unflappable as college coaches come, said he saw confidence mirrored in his leaders’ eyes during a timeout that immediately preceded the knockout punch. Two minutes later, everyone else watching got to see it, hear it and feel it when Spellman’s block and dunk both echoed around TD Garden in Boston. Villanova’s roster gives it good reason to have confidence. It shows most during the brief yet seemingly inevitable stretches that have left tournament foes overwhelmed, like Villanova is hurtling straight down on top of them. — Dan Murphy

It’s time to take care of things at home

Sometimes, enough is just enough.

Coach Bill Self lost 10 games at Allen Fieldhouse in 14 years — until a stretch of less than two months that came to an end on the first Saturday of February as Oklahoma State handed the Jayhawks an 84-79 loss.

The Cowboys built an 18-point lead in the first half, forced KU into poor shooting and owned the glass. In the wake of home losses to Arizona State and Texas Tech, needless to say, it didn’t go over well in Lawrence.

“We had a come-to-Jesus meeting, I would say,” senior Devonte’ Graham said, “with the coaching staff and everybody, just looking each other eye to eye, [saying] how we felt and what went wrong.”

From there, Kansas reclaimed its home hardwood, winning its final four games in the Phog.

And something else clicked. The Jayhawks clinched the Big 12 title outright on Senior Day against Trae Young and Oklahoma. They followed with a conference tournament crown and a run to their first Final Four since 2012.

So what happened in that meeting on Feb. 3 after the home loss to Self’s alma mater?

Perhaps the Jayhawks stopped caring so much about what everyone on the outside believed about them. They stopped listening to those who questioned their talent and doubted their ability to win a 14th straight Big 12 regular-season title.

The more Kansas played for itself, the more its players resembled versions of the Kansas teams that made 14 prior trips to this round of the NCAA tournament.

“Our kids operated under duress this year,” Self said, “and most years because of the streak. And it’s not so much the pressure we put on ourselves; it’s what the outside people always want to talk about.

“And they hear it, and they don’t want to be the team that doesn’t do it.”

Kansas has done it again. And you can give credit to a February loss and the immediate aftermath in the somber underbelly of their historic home arena. — Mitch Sherman

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