Sports

Three blue bloods, a miracle and the Final Four no one saw coming

What happens when a nun, her nouveau team and three blue bloods make their way to the Final Four in San Antonio?

You get a field that is a little bit expected, and little bit holy wow.

We all had an idea Villanova would be here. Kansas too. Michigan looked like a good bet after an impressive Big Ten tournament championship run.

But Loyola-Chicago has captured the NCAA tournament with a spirit only an underdog championed by a 98-year-old team chaplain could, an irresistible story that makes the Ramblers the rooting favorite for anyone without a team in the mix.

On the other side of the bracket, we have the opposite: Two tradition-rich No. 1 seeds set to meet in a game that is certain to have a championship feel. Especially if the way Kansas played in an epic overtime win over Duke in the Midwest Region final is any indication. This might not be Bill Self’s most talented Kansas team, but it’s one that has answered all the doubters all year long. Remember, this is a group that was overshadowed earlier this season in the Big 12. While the headlines went to other players and other teams, Kansas did what it usually does — win.

Its epic 85-81 overtime victory against Duke to get to the Final Four had high drama, but it also had Malik Newman hitting big shots and a defense that held the Blue Devils’ freshmen stars in check. The way the Jayhawks defended the 3 was huge, and it’s something they also will have to do against Villanova come Saturday night.

Villanova has been the king of 3s and the king of offense, and it is playing like the best team in the country, winning all four of its NCAA tournament games by double digits. Its determination to win a second national championship in three years is evident not only when you watch, but when you hear players talk about what they need to do to get there.

They also happen to have one of the deepest teams in the country, not to mention one of the best players in the country in Jalen Brunson. There won’t be a better semifinal matchup than Brunson versus Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham, another Wooden Award candidate.

Villanova goes beyond Brunson, though. And it goes beyond its offense. When those 3-pointers stopped falling against Texas Tech, Villanova relied on its defense to carry it. And it’s the way this team plays defense that players will tell you is the biggest difference between this season and last season.

If Kansas-Villanova is all about tradition and blue bloods, Loyola-Chicago and Michigan is all about expecting the unexpected.

Loyola-Chicago is the fourth No. 11 seed to make the Final Four, but it might be the most lovable. (Apologies to George Mason, LSU and VCU.) How many other teams have a nun that prays with them before games, then wears a backward cap and has bobblehead dolls made in their honor? It goes beyond Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, though. Her moxie shows through in the team itself, a believe-at-all-costs outfit filled with high school state champions, pinpoint shooters and relentless defenders.

Though their basketball tradition is wildly divergent, Loyola-Chicago and Michigan share a few commonalities about their twin NCAA tournament runs. When February began, the idea that both these teams would make the Final Four seemed as far-fetched as a No. 16 seed taking down a No. 1.

The Ramblers, playing in the Missouri Valley Conference, began the month off following a loss to Bradley. There would be only one way to make the tournament field: win the conference tournament.

Michigan, meanwhile, sunk to fifth place in the Big Ten and looked like a team without a true identity after a loss to Northwestern on Feb. 6.

But since their last losses, both Loyola-Chicago and Michigan reeled off one win after another. So many victories, in fact, that Loyola-Chicago has the longest winning streak in the nation at 14 games. Michigan is right behind, with a 13-game streak.

So getting hot at the right time has been a huge spark for both teams. But so have miracle-making buzzer-beating shots. How did Loyola-Chicago and Michigan get set on a course for a semifinal meeting? Let’s remember back to the opening round, when Loyola-Chicago played Miami. Donte Ingram hit the game winner from the midcourt logo to take down the Hurricanes 64-62. Miami coach Jim Larranaga said afterward, “It’s pretty simple to know why we call it March Madness.”

Anyone who thought that shot would be Loyola-Chicago’s only highlight during “One Shining Moment” had to think again after Clayton Custer hit the winner against Tennessee — and again after Marques Townes‘ late 3-pointer against Nevada.

It became irresistible to think a little divine intervention was at work in shifting the narrative away from FBI investigations toward a team that embodies what it means to play sports, no matter the level, conference or division.

But Michigan got some last-second help too. Who can forget the game-winning 3-pointer Jordan Poole hit against Houston in the second round, his legs splayed awkwardly. Poole and Ingram have the two best buzzer-beaters in this NCAA tournament. But there seems to be some divine intervention at work for Michigan, as well: Poole hit a nearly identical buzzer-beater in high school.

What’s more, Michigan is the only Final Four team that didn’t have to play a top-five seed to make it to San Antonio. Every other Final Four team did. Kansas and Villanova had to play two.

So now the stage is set. And given the way this tournament has unfolded, can anyone really say they know what will happen next?

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