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NCAA Bracket 2018: Final Four Teams, Updated Schedule and Picks

Brian Marron@@brianmarron398Featured ColumnistMarch 28, 2018

Michigan forward Moritz Wagner celebrates after scoring during the second half against Florida State in an NCAA men's college basketball tournament regional final, Saturday, March 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

On one side of the bracket, March Madness' Cinderella darling is looking at arguably the hottest team in America. On the other, two perennial heavyweights loaded with stars take the floor, giving us a little bit of everything in the 2018 Final Four.

Loyola-Chicago has impressed on its way to an improbable NCAA Tournament run, but will it have enough firepower to keep up with a high-flying Michigan team?

Meanwhile, Kansas already took down one prohibitive powerhouse in Duke, and the Jayhawks will have their hands full with a Villanova team that has looked as good as any throughout March.

So who should you be looking at as the favorites to reach the national title game?

       

Final Four 2018 Schedule

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When: Saturday, March 31

Television: TBS

Live Stream: March Madness Live

First Matchup: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago at 6:09 p.m. ET

Second Matchup: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas at 8:49 p.m. ET

      

Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago Preview

Everyone knows the narrative surrounding Loyola-Chicago.

The Ramblers hit back-to-back buckets on their final possession to move past Miami and Tennessee in the first weekend, which was followed up by a squeaker past Nevada to win their first three games by a combined four points.

They then smoked Kansas State 78-62 to reach the Final Four, setting themselves up for history, per ESPN Stats & Info:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

If Loyola-Chicago can upset Michigan on Saturday, @RamblersMBB will match UConn in 2014 and VCU in 2011 for the most wins as an underdog (5) in a single NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. https://t.co/8mG2SzmSwG

While it may be a Cinderella story, Loyola-Chicago's success is no accident.

Sure, it caught a break with perceived favorites Arizona and Virginia being knocked out in the first round, but Loyola-Chicago has been able to smother its opponents with excellent defense and smart offense.

The Ramblers have allowed just under 64 points per game while holding Nevada, the most potent offensive team of the bunch, to just 25.9 percent shooting from three despite the Wolf Pack ranking in the top 25 nationally from three entering the contest.

Offensively, the Ramblers have been great in executing their sets and creating high-percentage looks. They have shot at least 50 percent from the field while taking less shots than their opponent in every game, excluding the win over the Hurricanes.

Can these trends continue against Michigan? It will certainly be a daunting task.

The Wolverines have won 13 straight since a puzzling loss on Feb. 6 to Northwestern. They are second nationally in fewest turnovers per game and are eighth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 63.1 points per game.

To complement that, Michigan is able to score at a torrid pace thanks to an array of matchup problems. Moritz Wagner is nearly seven feet, but he is putting up 14.3 points per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three. In fact, the Wolverines boast five players shooting at least 37 percent from downtown.

This could be troublesome for Loyola-Chicago, since it averaged roughly 13 turnovers during its run through the South Regional. It won't be able to afford to give Michigan so many extra possessions, since the Wolverines are by far the most potent team it has faced thus far.

The big question for Michigan is whether it can close out the game. Free throws have been a major issue for the Wolverines, as they inexplicably rank 321st nationally with a 66.2 percentage as a team.

They let Florida State hang around in their 58-54 win thanks to struggles at the line, but Loyola-Chicago could make them pay more dearly.

Michigan will be the best combination of length and athleticism Loyola-Chicago has seen combined with the best shooting ability. The Ramblers will have some trouble matching up with the Wolverines' space on the floor offensively, which should allow Michigan's stout defense to get enough stops.

The Ramblers will keep it close late, but look for Michigan to get back to the title game for the first time since 2013.

        

Villanova vs. Kansas Preview

Speaking of teams on hot streaks, how about Kansas and Villanova? The Jayhawks are winners of their last seven and have lost only once since Feb. 10, including five wins over teams ranked in the last AP Poll of the regular season.

On the other hand, the Wildcats have won their last nine games, including four double-digit victories in the NCAA Tournament.

A huge reason for Kansas' elevated play over the last month is Malik Newman. The former 5-star recruit, who transferred from Mississippi State, is playing like a first-round NBA prospect, as NBC Sports' Rob Dauster provided his exceptional postseason numbers:

Rob Dauster @RobDauster

Malik Newman is now averaging 20.7 points and shooting 54.9% from three since the start of the Big 12 tournament. Has at least four threes in six of seven games.

He topped this off by scoring all 13 points for Kansas in its overtime win over Duke, giving him the most points through four games of the NCAA Tournament by a Jayhawk since Danny Manning, per ESPN Stats & Info.

Newman is joined by a sensational supporting cast. He and four other Jayhawks average double figures in scoring, led by senior guard Devonte' Graham with 17.2 points per night. The team's three leading scorers, Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Newman, all shoot above 39 percent from beyond the arc.

Villanova can certainly match Kansas' firepower, as the Wildcats lead the nation in scoring.

Jalen Brunson makes the Wildcats go by leading them in scoring with 19.2 points per game while dishing out 4.6 assists per night. Six Villanova players average double figures in scoring as the Wildcats space out the floor and run half-court sets to perfection.

This group of core players, which features mostly juniors, is used to winning, as The Athletic's Aaron Torres pointed out:

Aaron Torres @Aaron_Torres

Also, Villanova still hasn't lost back-to-back games since the 2013 season. Which remains the most incredible stat in college basketball. Frankly, it's not even close.

These two teams match up so evenly in terms of talent that there is not much to separate either as a definitive favorite. However, what each does with their big men could be the difference. 

Kansas uses more of a traditional center in Udoka Azubuike, who is a supreme athlete as a 7-footer who averages 13.1 points while being able to jump out of the gym.

He is definitely mobile for his size, but he still cannot regularly defend out on the perimeter, which showed against an inside-out player like Marvin Bagley of Duke, where Azubuike was limited to just nine points in 19 minutes before fouling out.

Villanova uses a smaller lineup that features either Eric Paschall or Omari Spellman up front, who both stand at 6'9" and play around 30 minutes a night.

Paschall and Spellman are both adept at playing on the perimeter as stretch forwards, with Spellman shooting 44.6 percent from three, while Paschall hits at a 33.3 percent clip. 

If Kansas can get stops defensively to avoid Villanova getting out on the fast break, it can take advantage of Azubuike's size advantage down low to create easy buckets and foul trouble for the Wildcats. Yet Azubuike could have trouble playing outside the paint to guard the Villanova big men, which takes him away from the basket and opens up driving lanes for Mikal Bridges and Brunson.

This powerhouse matchup is nearly a coin flip, but Villanova has to be seen as the slight favorite just because of its experience of being in this spot just two years ago and due to its winning pedigree.

The Wildcats will have to play their best game of the tournament thus far, but look for Jay Wright to have them prepared for Kansas.

        

Individual statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted. Team statistics are via NCAA.com unless otherwise noted. 

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