Despite a topsy-turvy NCAA tournament, we arrive in San Antonio with four 30-win teams — and while there’s a clear favorite and a clear underdog, all four teams have a legitimate chance to cut down the nets on Monday night.
The Final Four teams have combined for 129 wins and just 23 losses, but what’s the best way to beat each one?
How would a team slow down the outside shooting of Villanova? How can you stop Devonte’ Graham? Is there an easy way to score on Michigan? Why has Loyola-Chicago caused so many problems this month?
We went to the best sources to attempt to answer those questions and more: opposing coaches.
No. 1 VILLANOVA WILDCATS
Why they’re so good: It starts with All-American point guard Jalen Brunson, one of the favorites for the Wooden Award. Although Oklahoma’s Trae Young put up gaudier statistics, Brunson’s numbers were also historically efficient. He’s not insanely athletic and doesn’t possess eye-popping quickness, but opponents have yet to figure out a way to consistently stop him.
“Brunson is the most dominant player in college basketball in the sense that he has total command of their team,” one Big East assistant said. “He’s unflappable.
“Brunson’s ability to play through the post; most guards don’t spend enough time defending in the post. To have this guy dictate the pace the way he does, be in total control, then take you into a low-post situation. You can’t double, you’re on an island. It’s almost like he runs the offense through the post every couple possessions.”
Under Jay Wright, Villanova’s success has been predicated on playing small and making shots from the perimeter. This team is no different — but the Wildcats c you even when their shots aren’t falling.
“They shoot the ball from five positions. There are very few teams that shoot it from five positions,” an opposing coach said. “The other thing is when [Eric] Paschall is in the game, they drive from five positions. They have you on a string. People make such an emphasis to be there on the catch, that opens up their ability to drive you. The threat of being such a good shooting team opens up even more shots. Eventually that ball keeps pinging around, they all play for one another and they’re all very willing passers.”
Defensively, Villanova switches all screens — both on-ball screens and off-ball screens. The Wildcats have the personnel to match up with bigger or smaller lineups due to the versatility of Mikal Bridges and Paschall, and the maturation of Omari Spellman down low.
How to beat them: Villanova beat Texas Tech in the Elite Eight despite shooting 4-for-24 from behind the arc. It’s still the best way to try to defeat the Wildcats.
“The four times they’ve lost this year, they shot abysmal percentages from 3,” one coach said.
“I really think you have to sell out,” another Big East coach said. “Let players play on an island. You can’t help. If you help, they’re gonna land, kick the ball out, it’s gonna be reversal, you’re gonna be late, wide-open shot. They might beat you without 3s, but they’re gonna crush you with them.”
At the other end, coaches said the best way to get points against Villanova is to consistently drive to the rim early in the shot clock. While the Wildcats have multiple individual defenders who can really guard, there are some weak points. And if an opponent can attack and get Wright to use his bench, that’s when it can have some success.
“The more passes you make, the more they intensify,” an opposing Big East coach said. “If you’re aggressive in terms of getting to the line, getting to the paint. Go at Spellman. It’s not any easier, dealing with just Paschall — but get at their depth. You can get what you want around the rim more, have some success around the rim.”
The one thing that gives you trouble: The biggest thing that coaches come back to is how deflating playing against Villanova can be — at every stage of the game. The Wildcats are disciplined for 40 minutes, they don’t get away from the game plan, and they just bury teams when their outside shots start falling.
“They set the tone from the very beginning. If they win the tip, they’ll fire it up to Bridges, who is shot-ready and suddenly it’s 3-0,” one coach said.
“These mini-runs are the death of you,” another said. “Because they shoot the 3 so well, and they continue to stay with it. They are the best team I’ve seen in the last couple of years, going from like a four-point game to a 14-, 15-point game. They’re baiting you until the moment they snap your neck.”
No. 1 KANSAS JAYHAWKS
Why they’re so good: Similar to Villanova, the biggest problem for opponents is that Kansas generally has four guys on the court at all times who can consistently make 3-point shots. Devonte’ Graham was an All-American all season, but the NCAA tournament performance of Malik Newman has added a dimension to the Jayhawks’ attack.
“[Newman is] playing with a lot more confidence,” an opposing coach said. “He was taking the same shots earlier in the year that he’s taking in the tournament — he’s just making them.”
With Newman and Graham making plays, plus the shooting ability of Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and the slashing ability of Lagerald Vick, Kansas’ perimeter group can be unguardable at times. Throw in Udoka Azubuike‘s return to health, and it’s just really tough to handle the Jayhawks’ onslaught offensively.
“They put a tremendous amount of pressure on you because you have to have four guards,” one coach said. “They space you so much. You have to play Udoka at the rim for lobs, and it’s really hard to stay in front of Graham and Newman and keep them out of the lane.
“Udoka is a guy at the rim you have to contest. He gets dunks off dribble penetration, lob. Against zone, lob backside rim. A lot of the pick-and-roll coverage, you have to tag him. And you tagging him is giving the lift guy an open look, and then you’re playing off late closeouts. Or Udoka is getting a dunk.”
Bill Self’s legendary prowess calling plays out of timeouts hasn’t waned, either.
“They’re the best in the country at ATOs,” one Big 12 coach said. “You have to be aware of their backdoors and lobs, every single timeout. Be prepared for every special-teams situation.”
How to beat them: This team is far more reliant on the 3-point shot than any of Self’s previous groups in Lawrence — even with Azubuike back and healthy. The Jayhawks didn’t hit the 40 percent mark from behind the arc in any of their losses this season. Most of their open looks stem from dribble penetration in transition or off ball screens, so most coaches pointed to that as an area to limit.
“Their offense is not overly complicated,” one coach said. “Weave, ball screen. You have to have unbelievable protection behind every ball screen. Two things: Pick-and-roll coverage has to be at its best, and can’t let them get dribble penetration. And the third thing is to make them play in the half court.
“When you switch with Kansas, it bogs them down. Newman and Graham are the only two breakdown guys.”
At the other end, the key is getting Azubuike out of position, either by pulling him away from the rim or forcing him to switch onto a smaller player.
“Put Udoka in pick-and-roll coverage early in the clock,” an opposing coach said. “He’s a horrible pick-and-roll coverage guy, that’s why he fouls out all the time. Put him in the middle of the floor, not wing ball screens like Duke did. The middle of the floor gives you more space to operate. They’re not great on-ball defenders. You can drive them.”
The one thing that gives you trouble: At the end of the day, it boils down to Graham and containing him. Even in games where he struggled shooting the ball, he made big plays late to give Kansas a win. Graham hasn’t put up big points the past three games in the NCAA tournament, but he has still managed to distribute and run the offense effectively.
“They ghost-screen better than anyone else in the country,” a Big 12 coach said. “Mykhailiuk ghost-screens, allows Graham to play downhill. It allows Mykhailiuk to get the 3 off, or Graham gets an angle and goes downhill. We couldn’t stop him one-on-one.”
“[Graham is] one of the best players in the country,” another said. “His leadership ability, his DNA, ability to take over a game in multiple ways. Beat you with the pass, off the dribble, with the 3. He makes that team go.”
No. 11 LOYOLA-CHICAGO RAMBLERS
Why they’re so good: An 11-seed in the Final Four is shocking on the surface, and while it’s a surprise to see the Ramblers in San Antonio, this is a team that won 28 games before the NCAA tournament and has lost once since Jan. 3. The Ramblers won at Florida in December, and this month they’ve beaten Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State. A Final Four appearance might not be the end of the road for them. Like the other teams remaining, the Ramblers are extremely skilled and can put four or five guys on the court at all times who can shoot, pass and dribble.
“They’ve got this positionless group of guys,” one Missouri Valley coach said. “Because of that, they have guys who can shoot, put the ball on the floor, finish. They do a great job of finding mismatches.”
“Everybody on their team is an above-average passer and can shoot it, so they have spacing,” another head coach in the league said. “They don’t take bad shots. They really work together as a team to get great shots every possession. They have an inside presence, but most of their offensive attack is transition or through spacing. Offensively, that’s what makes them really good.”
Freshman center Cameron Krutwig is fifth on the team in scoring, but one coach identified him as the key to Loyola’s offense because he can really pass for a 6-foot-9 big man. Krutwig also enables coach Porter Moser to invert the offense and find mismatches.
Defensively, the Ramblers don’t give away easy baskets, either through transition points or foul shots.
“They do two things elite: transition defense because they don’t send anyone to the offensive glass, so you’re always playing against a set defense,” one coach said. “And they don’t foul. So they almost never send you to the line. They switch 1-4, and they’re very good at ball-screen defense. They don’t beat themselves.”
How to beat them: Multiple coaches said that being physical — at both ends of the floor — is the biggest key to beating Loyola. The Ramblers have been strong enough to handle most opponents this season, but the teams remaining are going to be bigger and more athletic than what Loyola is used to.
“I think you’re going to have to get physical,” one coach said. “A team that can really guard them at all four spots. They rely a lot on dribble penetration for one another. Getting back on defense, taking them out of transition. Keeping them out of the lane, contest shots.
“Bradley beat them on the glass, second and third opportunities, really got physical with them. They’re so comfortable playing small. They’d rather be small and quick. They’ve been able to mitigate that disadvantage by switching. If somebody who’s physical and athletic enough to take that away from them … they have some guys who can beat off the dribble.”
One Missouri Valley coach pointed to Krutwig’s matchup with Michigan’s Moritz Wagner as a potential trouble spot for Loyola.
“They ice ball screens and try to keep Krutwig in the paint defensively,” he said. “So they’ve got some real tough decisions to make. You can’t keep Krutwig in the paint against Wagner, so how they guard those actions, the pick-and-rolls in the middle of the floor. They can bring [Aundre] Jackson off the bench, but they need Krutwig on the floor. That’s a real interesting thing for me.”
The one thing that gives you trouble: The fact that Loyola plays smaller than most opponents and has high-level communication on defense enables the Ramblers to switch ball screens. As a result, most opponents have trouble getting easy baskets because there are very few mismatches to exploit.
“Their ability to switch defensively really hurt us,” one MVC coach said. “They can switch so much of your action defensively, they communicated so well as a team. They make you have to play one-on-one, and that’s not what we did well. They do a great job of helping each other.”
“Their ball-screen defense made it hard for us,” another coach said. “They just don’t beat themselves. They believe they can wear you down and win in the end because they’re more solid than you. And they are.”
No. 3 MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
Why they’re so good: It has been discussed ad nauseam over the past few months, but this is by far the best defensive team John Beilein has ever had at Michigan. The Wolverines are a top-five team by defensive efficiency, and the best defensive team left in the NCAA tournament by a sizable margin.
“They’ve got three really good on-ball defenders,” one coach said. “Most teams don’t have two, or even one. They have three. [Zavier] Simpson, [Muhammad-Ali] Abdur-Rahkman, [Charles] Matthews can really guard the ball. You don’t have a matchup on the perimeter you can attack. They’re handsy, they’re physical in all the right ways. How handsy and chippy they are, in itself is very anti-Michigan-like. They’re well-schooled. They’re so good at putting their hands on or getting an armbar into you and then taking it off, then beating you to the spot.”
Moreover, it’s an effort thing on the defensive end of the floor for this season’s Wolverines.
“They’re grittier, tougher, they take more pride in it,” a Big Ten coach said. “There’s more buy-in.”
Beilein-coached teams will always be able to spread the floor offensively, with four or five guys on the court at all times who can make shots from the perimeter. Even though the improved defense is getting more attention this season, Michigan still has plenty of offensive punch.
“If you’re a traditional defensive team, you’ve got no chance of guarding them,” one opposing coach said. “The teams that have slowed them down the most are teams that are nontraditional, that can switch a lot. You’ve got no chance of defending them if you don’t switch ball screens.”
How to beat them: The one defensive weakness that opponents have found against Michigan — even if it didn’t end up changing the game — was to attack whomever the Wolverines had at power forward, whether it was Duncan Robinson or Isaiah Livers. While Wagner is a capable defender away from the basket, opponents have tried to take him to the rim or in the post.
“We thought you can really, really attack them through the 4,” one coach said. “We went after [Wagner] ASAP. They don’t want to foul because they want to stay in the game. Those are the most likely to give on a possession because they want to stay in the game.”
“You can still attack their bigs,” another coach said. “That’s where you can really exploit them. If you’ve got a back-to-the-basket, bully 5, he can have success on Wagner. At the end of the day, he doesn’t want to foul.”
Michigan has had some offensive struggles in the NCAA tournament, especially against Montana and Houston during the first weekend, when its outside shots weren’t falling. That’s the primary thing to take away to beat the Wolverines — and then forcing them to create offense off the bounce against a set defense.
“They’re elite at two skills: passing and shooting. They’re not elite ball handlers,” an opposing coach said. “That was our whole thing: make them play us 5-on-5 or one-on-one. If you can get them playing one-on-one, you can beat them. How many air balls did they have against Houston? They stayed down, forced them to beat them with their second- or third-best pitch.”
The one thing that gives you trouble: Deciding how to handle Michigan’s ball screens — and deciding how to guard Wagner when he’s the one setting the screen — can determine whether a team is going to have any chance of beating the Wolverines.
“You go in saying we’re going to switch ball screens,” one coach said. “OK, when do you switch? On contact? That’s the thing every defense has to figure out. What if they never set one, and just shuffle their feet and get out of it? It takes a really disciplined approach. Their ball screen, they wait for you to make a coverage call, then they figure out if they’re going to set or slip it. If you scream left, he’s going to bail out and you have two on the ball and they’ve got numbers.”
“What are you doing with Wagner?” one Big Ten coach said. “One of the best things he does is shoot 3s. He can drive you, he can post you. How are you playing him? Are you doubling him? Are you switching ball screens?”