First, let's bid a fond goodbye to Loyola-Chicago. Thanks, guys, for striking a blow for the mid-majors and proving how dangerous these teams can be if given a chance. And to think, Loyola — like the UB men — wouldn't have been been in the NCAA field if it hadn't won the Missouri Valley tournament title.
The Ramblers didn't think they were a Cinderella (despite the ubiquitous Sister Jean), and for more than 30 minutes they outplayed Michigan in the Final Four on Saturday. But as so often happens, superior athletic talent and depth kicked in and ended the dream run.
So on Monday night, for the second time in six seasons, John Beilein will take the Wolverines to the NCAA championship game. A Buffalo guy (OK, he's from Burt) gets another chance at the big prize, while adding a little postscript to our best college hoop season in half a century.
But it wasn't just talent that pulled Michigan through Saturday. Coaching was a huge factor in the comeback. In the first half, the Wolverines were as bad offensively as I've ever seen a Beilein team. They had one assist. They were rushing the offense and not spreading the floor in typical Beilein fashion.
Beilein earned his keep, making the proper adjustments at both ends. On offense, his team moved the ball with more purpose, skipping passes to stay ahead of the defense and get better shots. On defense, they pressured the guards, doubled the post and made Loyola's offense look silly.
Of course, it's defense that has been Michigan's trademark this season. Beilein is an acknowledged offensive master, but it wasn't until he hired a couple of veteran defensive coaches two years ago that Michigan had a D to complement its offensive identity.
They have their work cut out now. Michigan hasn't had a tough road to get here. The Wolverines are the first team in NCAA tourney history to reach the championship game without facing a team seeded as high as fifth along the way. They've beaten teams seeded 14, 6, 7, 9 and 11.
Villanova is the best team in the nation, a veteran offensive machine with a great coach (Jay Wright) seeking a second NCAA title in three years. Just imagine, if they hadn't been upset by Wisconsin in the second round in Buffalo last year as a No. 1 seed, the Wildcats might be looking at a threepeat.
My best "matchup to watch" is the last one. Villanova is the top-scoring team in the country at 86.8 points a game. Michigan is eighth in scoring D at 62.9. The Wildcats are fifth in field-goal percentage (50.1 percent), third in made 3-pointers a game (11.6) and and eighth in free-throw shooting. (77.9).
Michigan defends the 3-point line well and is second in the nation in fewest turnovers. Beilein teams protect the ball, which will be crucial against an unselfish Villanova team that passes well, is loaded with good outside shooters and pushes the pace in transition.
Villanova put on a 3-point show against Kansas in the second semifinal. They sank six 3-pointers in the first seven minutes — by five different players. That didn't include all-America point guard Jalen Brunson, who drilled three 3s later and finished with 18 points and six assists.
The Wildcats finished 18-for-40 behind the arc, a Final Four record for 3s in a game. They broke the record before halftime. In the first 20 minutes, they beat No. 1 seed Kansas, 39-6, from 3-point range. Scary.
It wasn't any shock. Villanova had shot better than 50 percent from 3 in two earlier games in the tourney, making 14 of 27 against Radford and 13 of 24 against West Virginia's vaunted defense in the Sweet 16. They knocked down 17 3-pointers against Alabama in the second round.
Villanova has six players who shoot at least 38 percent from behind the arc. Five have made at least 50 3-pointers. The dagger can come from anywhere.
Beilein's teams aren't afraid to launch. Michigan was seventh in the country in 3-point attempts, so we could have a bombs-away title game that sparks more discussion of moving the line back to international distance — an experiment that was used in the NIT. The 3 is getting out of hand. It's a good idea.
Watching Villanova work its offense, it reminded me of Beilein at his best. Their spacing and passing in the halfcourt were exquisite. Beilein's offenses tend to make the court appear wider. Wright's team is better at it right now and is favored to beat him at his own game.
Moritz Wagner, a 6-11 center from Germany, had the game of his life against Loyola. Wagner had 24 points and 15 rebounds, joining Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players in the last 40 years to have at least 20 points and 15 rebounds in a Final Four game. Pretty good company, I must say.
But Wagner was a mismatch for the Ramblers' front line. When Michigan was struggling in the first half, his offensive rebounding was their only reliable weapon. He won't be nearly as effective inside against Villanova's big people.
The biggest issue, though, is in the backcourt. Villanova has a big edge with Brunson, who was announced Sunday as the Naismith player of the year. Brunson is a 6-3 junior point guard who can make 3s and get into the lane. Loyola's offense suffocated when its guards couldn't break down Michigan's defense. Brunson is a different matter.
It would be terrific to see Beilein win the national title. That's one reason I picked Michigan to win it all before the tournament. Sentiment got in the way. Daemen coach Mike MacDonald, who was Beilein's assistant at Canisius and successor as head coach, joked that I was giving John the kiss of death.
OK, I'll get out of our guy's way now. When I picked Michigan, I had the top seeds falling on the other side of the bracket. 'Nova didn't cooperate. Sentiment aside, I get the feeling that after a favorable run, Michigan is running into an opponent that's simply better.