Villanova, Kansas, Michigan and Loyola-Chicago all punched their tickets to the Final Four next weekend in San Antonio with victories in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
The most improbable of the bunch is the 11-seeded Loyola Ramblers from the Missouri Valley Conference. After they survived Miami, Tennessee and Nevada on the final shot, Loyola knocked off 9-seed Kansas State to qualify for San Antonio against all odds.
The small school tucked away in the big city first gained fame on the basketball court in 1963. The Ramblers won the National Championship and faced extreme prejudice in the process with four African American starters, a progressive action for its time by the program and coach George Ireland.
The team is often referenced for their important role in the civil rights movement and well remembered in Chicago, but the program has been absent from the Final Four ever since. Until now.
With the help of some well-placed upsets, the Ramblers were able to avoid many of the top threats in their bracket on their way to San Antonio. 11-seeds have made it this far a few times in the past, but never all the way to the National Championship. The lowest seed to play for the title is an 8.
Loyoloa-Chicago will matchup with the Michigan Wolverines from the Big 10. Michigan, undefeated since Feb. 6, has also faced a low set of seeds en route to a Regional Championship. The best seed the Wolverines have defeated was Houston (6), which they needed a miraculous buzzer-beater to accomplish.
After they took down Montana and Houston in the first two rounds, Michigan knocked off Texas A&M in blowout fashion and just scraped by the 9-seeded Florida State Seminoles in the Elite Eight.
Despite Loyola’s resurgence, it’s easy to think Michigan is catching another break with an 11-seeded opponent in the Final Four. The Wolverines will try and get back to the title game for the first time since 2013, when they lost to Louisville.
The Texas Tech Red Raiders gave Villanova a fight throughout most of Sunday’s Elite Eight matchup, but the Wildcats proved to be too much and will head back to the Final Four. Villanova won the National Championship in 2016.
The Wildcats have had perhaps the most impressive tournament resume out of their Final Four counterparts. They have defeated all four of their opponents by doubel-digits and may have the best odds to win the title on Monday. Villanova is currently 34-4 overall this year.
The Kansas Jayhawks of the Big 12 stamped the final ticket to San Antonio with a hard-fought win over Duke on Sunday. The overtime showdown between two of the best programs in the nation may have been the best game of the tournament to this point.
With freshman phenoms Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter along with senior leader Grayson Allen, many pegged the Duke Blue Devils as the best team remaining. Allen had appeared to win the game on the final play of regulation with a shot that bounced around the rim and almost fell through twice before it decided on five more minutes.
The Jayhawks came up with two big turnovers down the stretch in overtime to compliment Malik Newman’s 13 points in the five minute span. The freshman transfer finished the game with 32 to lead all scorers.
The best matchup will be Villanova and Kansas. The two 1-seeds survived one of the most unpredictable tournaments ever and are the nation’s most talented teams, without disrespect to Michigan or Loyola-Chicago. This semifinal will have a championship feel to it.
Most Cinderella stories die before the Elite Eight, so the Ramblers have already etched their names in history. The later rounds are usually when the best talent rises to the top and the nation’s best team takes shape. The Final Four matchups will take place on Saturday evening and the National Championship on Monday night.