SAN ANTONIO –– The journey to the Final Four had potholes, for all of them. From this weekend’s center stage, we can look back to four crossroads, where each remaining national title contender had to take the right turn to get to San Antonio.
For Loyola . . .Before there was a miracle March, before the world met Sister Jean, there was the injury wave that took out the starting backcourt of Clayton Custer with his ankle and Ben Richardson with his broken hand. The Cinderella Ramblers that nobody has been able to stop the last month? They lost three games in 18 days in late December and early January — including at home to an Indiana State team that finished 13-18.
Richardson was out the first two defeats. The one constant in all three was no Custer. Clearly, they were going nowhere without them.
“Clayton is one of those guys — it’s like how they talk about a great quarterback in the huddle,” coach Porter Moser said. “If you’re in that huddle, you hear offensive linemen and other positions say, `You just know we’re going to march down that field because of the confidence he instills.’
‘That’s kind of the way they feel with Clayton.”
Custer came back to the huddle just as the Ramblers were making a tricky swing through Northern Iowa and Illinois State. Richardson had already been back two games. Could they stay healthy and stop the bleeding? Loyola has played 22 games since with the same lineup — and won 21 of them.
Yes, they could.
For Villanova . . .
Before there was the Big East tournament title, and the relentless march through the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament, there was the leaky defense. Most notably, the 101-93 shelling by Butler in late December, which came in between outscoring DePaul 103-85 and Marquette 100-90.
Yeah, the Wildcat offense was making the scoreboard smoke, but would this work in March? Jay Wright wanted better.
“When we got a lead in that (DePaul) game, we kind of relaxed defensively and we won, but they made a run at us. In the Butler game, we started the game that way, just giving up buckets and trying to outscore them.
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“So that kind of was a slap in the face. But we said at the time, we’re not going to just change this (quickly) . . . it’s going to go back to basics. It’s going to take a lot of time. The guys really did work at it, and it’s starting to pay off now at the right time.
“We were afraid we might run out of time."
They didn’t. But it’s been a process. “Even in late February, even in March, we’re getting better and better and better,” Jalen Brunson said. “(Wright) just kept saying, 'if we keep winning, we have a chance to keep getting better.’ That’s what survive and advance means.”
Villanova has won its last eight games by double figures — though the Big East title game with Providence went overtime — and given up an average of 66.6 points.For Michigan . . .
Before they stormed through the Big Ten tournament and rolled through the West Regional, there was the wobbly section in January and February, when bad things happened like getting wiped out by 20 points at Nebraska, and taking a dreary 61-52 loss at Northwestern. It was starting to get late, and there was no momentum to be seen.
“We had a really bad second half against (Northwestern),” coach John Beilein said, “They took us out of a lot of things we were trying to do. And I don’t think we’ve lost since.”
A return to defense, he said, has been a big reason way. Also showing an ability to adapt to whatever style has come the Wolverines way.
“There is a point in defense that they understand how it all works collectively together. So that’s been a big deal,” Beilein said. “There are some things that we haven’t changed one bit, and we continue to do. But we just tried to change some angles and really study ourselves.
“But every game, it’s like the first five minutes where it’s a little bit of a classroom, trying to figure out, what are they going to do? How are they going to do it? We’ve gotten better at that as we’ve went along. Some people pressure us, some stay back. We keep finding ways to win.”
Which the Wolverines have done 13 times in a row. One team has broken 70 against them in regulation in a month.For Kansas . . .
Is your seat belt securely fastened? Before there was the Big 12 tournament run and the epic rite of passage with Duke, there was a wild roller-coaster ride. One night, all would seem well. The next, alarms were going off — especially when they lost three games at home. Bill Self wondered aloud about his team’s toughness more than once.
So it’s hard to find one turning point. Just follow their words to understand how curvy the trail has been.
Self, after the home loss to Texas Tech in early January: “We were so passive, we got what we deserved . . . We have allowed our guys to be finesse guys, and that is a formula for disaster. This could happen a couple or several more times without question, even at home, because we have shown everybody we have a chink in the armor.”
Self, after another home loss to Oklahoma State in February: “Anybody in this league can beat us. I’ve said that all along . . . We’ve got to figure out a way to get (the winning mentality) back, and I certainly think it starts between the ears. We need to be more prepared to play. Of course, that’s on me for not getting them ready. It’s also on me for allowing us to be so soft.”
Devonte’ Graham that same game. “It’s very frustrating. You are supposed to win your home games and it is supposed to be really tough on the road. We have it flip-flopped this year.”
Self, after the 18-point regular-season ending loss at Oklahoma State, which gave the Cowboys a sweep of the Jayhawks: “I’ve always thought losses aren’t awful if you can learn from them and be better because of them, but we still don’t know if that’s going to be the case . . . We don’ put fear in anybody. We used to play people and there was doubt before they played us, whether or not they could play with us. There’s not that doubt this year.
“Hopefully we’ll get better because of it. Sad to me when somebody already kicks your ass once. Seems like to me that’s plenty of motivation.”
The Kansas moment of truth had arrived, on the doorstep of the Big 12 tournament. The Jayhawks haven’t lost since. A team often pounded on the boards in the Big 12 – out-rebounded 16 of 21 games against league completion — destroyed Duke in that department 47-32. Malik Newman has been on fire, but it goes deeper to the physical tone of the Kansas game.“There’s something different about us,” Self said this week. “There’s just something about us right now that hasn’t been there consistently all year long.”
So what’s happened?
“I don’t know. Maybe losing three at home. Maybe that last Oklahoma State game at home . . . I said, `Guys, you think you’re so tough, so let’s talk about history. You think this team is tough enough to rebound the ball at a high level six games in a row, when we’ve shown we haven’t done it two games in a row all year? So you think you can just turn it on and do that?’
“It wasn’t that they weren’t trying, it’s just none of them were willing to get out of their own comfort zone.”
And now they have. Perhaps they just noticed the calendar.
“Certainly has had its fair share of doubters, including myself, at certain times of the year,” Self said of his team. “But there’s no question that they’ve rallied and are playing their best ball right now.”
Four teams have done that. This is a Final Four of survivors.