OMAHA, Neb. –– And so, it has come to this. An NCAA tournament where nearly anything could happen has produced a Final Four that has nearly everything.
A 98-year-old nun from Loyola with her own bobblehead doll and custom sneakers. A Michigan senior guard who thrives in his pink shoes. Villanova, with a coach renowned for great suits, and winning. And Kansas, with a new sense of destiny after barely escaping an extraordinary overtime cauldron Sunday against Duke.
What could possibly happen next?
This had already turned into the NCAA NHB Tournament. Never Happened Before.
A No. 16 seed beating a No. 1? NHB.
The top four seeds of a region gone the first week? NHB.
A regional championship game between No. 9 and 11 seeds? NHB.
And now look what could happen.
There’s Kansas, who could make San Antonio its de facto capital city.
The Jayhawks won the national championship 10 years ago, the last time the Final Four was in San Antonio. And now look where they’re going.
Kansas, a prime and shining example of how fragile fate has been the past two weeks. Had Grayson Allen’s would-be winning shot for Duke not rolled in and out at the regulation buzzer Sunday, the Jayhawks would have been three-peat Elite Eight losers, while Bill Self would be 2-8 in regional title games. He’d be answering an entirely different set of questions now.
From the sunny side of the 85-81 game, Kansas’ Malik Newman: “It was just new life for us.”
From the crushed side, Duke’s Allen: “It came really close to going in, and it didn’t.”
“It looks like an ocean right now,” Newman said of the basket. “I know it’s real, but it feels like I’m living in a dream.”
Kansas, whose season wanderings so aggravated Self — the Jayhawks even lost three games at home for the first time in 19 years — he once questioned their steel. “I called my team soft,” he said Sunday. “But there’s nothing soft about them.” Indeed, on this vital day, the team whose rebounding muscle has often been doubted wiped out Duke and its tall blue chippers on the boards 47-32.
But then there’s Villanova, who could stamp itself as the elite program of its time with a second national championship in three years.
“You just feel so blessed. You think, why me?” Jay Wright said Sunday. “At this point, you don’t really try to figure out why.”
Villanova, the relentless victory machine that has gone five seasons and 184 games without losing two in a row.
Villanova, with three faces still around from the 2016 championship game. Jalen Brunson, of course. But also Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth — the 7.5-point career scorer who hit six of seven shots for 20 points that night against North Carolina.
Villanova, who with two more wins would give the old and new Big East six of the last 16 national championships.
Villanova's Jay Wright may look like he's all business but he relishes and respects the chase for yet another Final Four, his third in the last nine years. pic.twitter.com/9B10RIN6ZF— Andy Katz (@TheAndyKatz) March 25, 2018
Villanova, with Wright establishing himself as one of the sport’s top coaches, and maybe it's best-dressed. “It’s GQ Jay,” former Wildcat Josh Hart once called him. Even more impressive than his wardrobe is his offense; four out, one in, and don’t be afraid to fire away from the 3-point line.
So it's Villanova, trying to become only the fourth team in history to lead the nation in scoring and win the national championship. The last team to do it? That 2005 North Carolina team the Wildcats nearly upset. The next most recent is 55 years ago with — drum roll, please — Loyola-Chicago.
And yet, when the shots don’t fall, as they didn’t against Texas Tech, it’s Villanova, of iron will and defense, which is why Wright could say Sunday, “It’s fun when they go in, but we don’t worry about missing them.” And Texas Tech coach Chris Beard could observe, “Their identity is their toughness.”
The Ramblers are the fourth No. 11 seed to get to the Final Four, but none of the other three – LSU of ’86, George Mason of ’06 and VCU of ’11 – won a game. Matter of fact, nobody seeded lower than eighth has ever won a Final Four game. With balance and belief and defense, Loyola could. The other three regional champions shot a combined 25.8 percent from the 3-point in their title games over the weekend. The confident Ramblers hit 50 percent.
Loyola, the team that in two weeks has gone from unranked to the Final Four — winning three games by four points, and then the regional championship by 16.
Loyola, the 1963 national champion that disappeared for decades into obscurity.
Loyola, who lost at home to an Indiana State team that went 13-18, found some answers, and since has won 21 of 22.
Loyola, who has had four different leading scorers in its four NCAA Tournament victories. Two of them, Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson have been playing together since grade school.
Loyola, with Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, who began the month as just another team chaplain, and now is getting her own bobblehead doll.
Loyola, with seven players on the roster who won state championships.
“It's all about our culture. We have a locker room full of winners, we have a locker room full of guys that want to win again,” Lucas Williamson said.
“As a kid, it’s cool to experience watching March Madness and always rooting for the underdog,” Cameron Krutwig added. “Fast forward to now, and we are the underdog. We’re the team that everyone’s rooting for.”
Michigan, whose John Beilein has coached college basketball 40 years, but never one day as an assistant.
Michigan, whose star big man, Moe Wagner, is from Berlin. And whose best 3-pointer shooter, Duncan Robinson, used to play in Division III.
Michigan, whose senior leader Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is named after the boxer and has played 142 games for the Wolverines. Last spring, he lost his basketball shoes in Michigan’s runway plane mishap on the way to the Big Ten tournament, started wearing pink replacements, and the Wolverines rolled to the Sweet 16. After a bad game in December this season, he went back to pink, and has stayed that way.
Michigan, one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the nation, which means few leads are safe.
Michigan, its tournament ride preserved in the second round by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from freshman Jordan Poole, who has only five field goals in the entire tournament. He played two minutes in the regional championship game.
Michigan, who has gotten this far using many methods — “We keep finding ways to win,” Beilein said — but mostly succeeds with defense. Which by the way, is why Poole didn’t play more Saturday. “Most of our freshman, let’s just say they’re growing defensively,” Beilein said.
And now, Michigan, the villain, who will be trying to rain on Loyola’s parade. Will the Wolverines be ready for Sister Jean?
“She was on my Instagram a lot in the last days,” Wagner noticed. Beilein mentioned Loyola reminds him of another team. Michigan.
“They have a bunch of good kids. They play together, they play defense. They have a bunch of guys that can shoot. The only difference is they have a wonderful nun on the sidelines rooting them on with some prayers. But we have some prayers on our team, too. We have some people behind us.”
The first two weeks of the tournament gave so much, with the crescendo the Kansas-Duke clash of giants that saw 18 lead changes.
“It’ an honor to play in that game,” Mike Krzyzewski said when it was over, even as the loser.
“That was an epic game. One of the best, if not the best, I’ve ever been a part of,” Self seconded.
There was Self raising his firsts to the crowd. “I’m not the most emotional guy. But sometimes you can just be overcome with it, and at that moment I was.”
And Allen, in grief about his last college game. “No one wants to end with a loss like that. It’s so abrupt. The end of the game comes, and it’s over.”
Now it is left to the four teams left standing in this month of constant peril and opportunity. They are assigned the task of coming up with the proper ending.