Three teams that need no introduction. One from out of nowhere.
Though the 2018 NCAA Tournament produced the biggest upset in the history of the event along with a seemingly endless string of wild finishes and unexpected results, the Final Four will look very much like it has over the last handful of seasons.
In one of next Saturday’s semifinals, it’s a barnburner of a matchup between top-seeded programs with rich histories: Villanova vs. Kansas.
In what will quickly become known as the “other” semifinal, it’s an upstart vs. another school that knows this road: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago vs. No. 3 Michigan .
Remarkable as Loyola’s run — and this tournament — have been, this marks the fifth time over the last six seasons that three teams seeded 1 through 4 have been joined by another seeded 7 or higher.
The four previous times, the underdog has bowed out in the semifinal.
“Why not us?” Ramblers coach Porter Moser said, repeating his team’s oft-used mantra this month — one he hopes can lead to yet another history making upset. “You have to have high-character guys that believe to truly do that.”
The teams will have trouble topping the show Kansas and Duke put on Sunday with the last spot in San Antonio up for grabs. The Jayhawks topped the Blue Devils 85-81 in overtime to send Kansas back to the site of its last national title, in 2008.
The Kansas-Villanova matchup is sure to re-ignite calls for some form of reseeding heading into the Final Four. The winner between the top seeds will almost certainly be favored in the final. This year’s most-notable underdog — outside of Maryland-Baltimore County, which beat Virginia in the tournament’s first week to pull off the first 16 vs. 1 upset — is Loyola-Chicago.
Urged on by their 98-year-old nun, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the Ramblers are the fourth 11th seed to make college basketball’s final weekend — joining LSU (1986), George Mason (2006) and VCU (2011).
A look at some of the history behind these Final Four teams:
LOYOLA-CHICAGO: It’s not totally accurate to say the Ramblers are from nowhere. This program won the title in 1963 in one of the most significant championship runs in the sport’s history — including a game known as the “Game of Change.” The Ramblers, with a mostly Black roster, defeated an all-white team from Mississippi State, which served as prelude to the better-known title game in which Texas Western and its all-Black starting lineup defeated Kentucky. Loyola went on to beat Cincinnati in overtime for the title. After the win Saturday, Les Hunter, a member of the 1963 team, said the Ramblers are capable of bringing home another championship. “I think they’re the best right now,” Hunter said. “They work so well together. They can play with anybody — anybody — right now.”
MICHIGAN: All the freshmen dominating today’s game should pay homage to the Fab Five — the group of five freshmen, including Jalen Rose and Chris Webber, who made baggy shorts the rage and took the Wolverines to the Final Four in 1992. This year’s Wolverines were a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team in early February, after a loss at Northwestern dropped them to 8-5 in the conference. They haven’t lost since, and their 13-game winning streak is second in the country only to the Ramblers, who have won 14 straight. “We don’t get caught up in the win streak that we’re on,” guard Charles Matthews said. “We didn’t even know we were on a 13-game win streak.”
VILLANOVA: Juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges were there for Villanova’s national title two years ago. They are the team’s leading scorers. The Wildcats haven’t been seriously pushed yet in the tournament, winning every game by double-digits and paying no mind to the upsets that have busted brackets for the past two weeks. The key to all this success? “At this point, you don’t really try to figure out why,” coach Jay Wright said. “You’re kind of saying, ‘Why us,’ you know, and just soaking it in.”
KANSAS: Since winning it all in 2008, the Jayhawks had been seeded No. 1 five times and failed to make the Final Four any of those times. If Grayson Allen’s shot at the buzzer in regulation hadn’t gone in and out — twice — this might have marked No. 6. But Malik Newman scored all 13 of Kansas’ points in overtime to help the Jayhawks top Duke. “There’s a lot of players out there who deserve the best of the best,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “They get to experience the very best there is. I’m happy for them.”
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