SAN ANTONIO –– The teams have arrived in San Antonio and the stage is set for the 2018 Final Four. Here are some observations from Day 1 at the Dome, from interviewing all four Final Four coaches and surveying the scene:
1. The scene in the Loyola-Chicago locker room was one of the tightest — and yet packed — I’ve seen in 27 years of Final Four coverage.
2. Michigan coach John Beilein has incredible respect for Loyola because he sees the Wolverines in the Ramblers and vice versa. He said the Ramblers play a European style of play with their spacing and dribble-drive concepts. “This is a beautiful way to play,’’ Beilein said. “They are like us. They are not Cinderella. They can win this whole thing.’’Beilein added that the Ramblers are like Princeton in philosophy and said the Wolverines have to be as smart as Loyola. “We have to have incredible energy,’’ he said. “We don’t want to over practice. We need to have great legs for that game to defend.’’
3. Loyola coach Porter Moser said the Ramblers went hard in practice Thursday. They didn’t hesitate on doing close-out drills, cutting hard, and were embracing still getting better. “We are embracing the notion that we belong here,’’ Moser said. “We earned it. We believed we could beat the team in front of us. I believe these guys can win it. I believe these guys think they can win it. ... We’ve had a mantra of no finish line. They have said that over and over since Saturday. We’re not done yet.’’
4. Moser is adamant that the direction of the Loyola program is not going back. “It’s completely changed,’’ said Moser, who once had to hand out flyers to get people to come to the games. “We’ve changed the dynamics forever. The enthusiasm of college sports is an awesome experience. We’re not going back. It has changed the direction of Loyola basketball for a long time.’’
5. Moser is a product of Chicago and came up through high school when DePaul and Loyola were actually competing at a high level in the early to mid-80s. He loves that Chicago has embraced this team/program again. Taking his kids to the Cubs and Blackhawk parades was one thing, but now having them see the city embrace his team? Wow. That’s something else for him to grasp.
6. Beilein has been acting like he’s a teenager after wins, putting on a poncho and goggles and spraying water on his players as they douse him. So, where does his youthful enthusiasm come from? He said he makes sure to always be connected, whether that was from his kids, who are now adults, or his taste in music. He said it just makes sense that he’s back in Michigan, near Motown. “I try to stay up on everything,’’ said Beilein. “I love music, all kinds of music. But while everyone was listening to the Beatles, I was listening to the Temptations, the Four Tops and the Jackson 5. I have great assistants who fill me on the words I should be saying.’’
7. Beilein finally connected with Tom Brady, who is a passionate Michigan alumnus. Beilein said he has missed him when he’s been on campus, so given the opportunity to FaceTime with him Thursday was yet another cool moment.
8. I love, love, love this answer from Moser on how the players are genuinely connected to Sister Jean. Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune wrote about how the love and affection for the 98-year old nun should be a sign about how to treat the elderly. Moser agrees: “I love how our guys treat her and embrace her. Sometimes the youth think the elderly don’t have anything to give. She’s got a ton of knowledge and the gift she gives to our players is that she’s got experience.’’ Moser discussed his first meeting with Sister Jean, which entailed a manila folder from her with a breakdown of every player on the roster he inherited. Love it!
9. Bill Self naturally thinks about Mario Chalmers’ overtime shot when he remembers the last time he was at the Alamodome in 2008 — the year Kansas beat Memphis in overtime. He said since then he didn’t think the Jayhawks would make the Final Four in 2012 or this season. The reason? Depth.
10. Frank Mason was the player of the year last season, but he shared a backcourt with Devonte' Graham. Graham was a first-team All-American this season and now Mason is in the NBA. Graham does have Malik Newman, but Newman didn’t blossom until toward the end of the season. “I respect Frank, he’s a pit bull but he had Davonte,’’ Self said. “This year, Devonte' had to take on more leadership.’’
11. Self said once the “light came on” for Newman, he has been as good as any guard in the country in the last seven games. This is a great Self line: “You’ve got to have a guy who can run crap offense and come away with three points and Malik gives us that guy.’’
12. Self gets it: “Guys are judged on whether they get to a Final Four (at a place like Kansas). You go 35-3 and don’t get to a Final Four and it’s what did you really do? With this team, when maybe it was least expected, it’s most gratifying.’’13. Villanova’s Jay Wright says the concept of playing four guards happened in 2005 when the Wildcats played Florida in the second round of the tournament. In the midst of the game, he realized that it’s a lot of fun and it could really work.
14. Has Wright ever thought about leaving Villanova? Sure, but “every time I think about it, I realize I have the best job in college basketball. It’s my hometown and my wife is an alum. The mission of Villanova fits how we want to run our basketball program. It’s a perfect fit. It’s the best possible place for me, my wife and my family."
15. To beat Kansas, after knocking off Big 12 teams West Virginia and Texas Tech, the Wildcats will have to be ready physically and mentally. “It’s the most physical conference in the country,’’ Wright said of the Big 12. “We know this could be a tight game and while they could run out on you, we know it’s going to be a battle. We’re going to have fight and scrap and claw and find a way to steal this in the end.’’
16. Winning a title two seasons ago has made Wright want another one even more. “After you win one, you get to enjoy the process more. Once you’re in the NCAA tournament, you know how it was done and the more you want it. You know this is how it happened last time. You don’t feel you’ve got a shot until you get to the Final Four and then you want it bad. I love this team. I’m so proud they have taken us here.’’