2017-18 Final Four Preview: Michigan vs. Loyola Chicago

(3) Michigan vs. (11) Loyola Chicago

- Matt Cox

Initial Thoughts: 1986 LSU >>> 2006 George Mason >>> 2011 VCU >>> 2018 Loyola...  

That's right folks - the 'Fighting Sister Jeans' from Chicago's north side have officially etched their name into the college basketball history books as the 4th 11-seed to dance all the way to the Final 4. After withstanding heart palpitations for the first three rounds of the tourney (courtesy of two buzzer beaters and three wins by a combined 4 points), Ramblers' nation finally got to exhale as Loyola kept their foot on the gas to pull away from K-State by double-digits and punch their ticket to San Antonio.

On the other hand, the Wolverines' Elite 8 battle carried a very different plot line - one that included offensive struggles and frustration, but was ultimately defined by the very element that's distinguished this year's team from so many others throughout the John Beilein era at Michigan: an elite defense.

Looking at the attributes of Beilein's past teams that have made deep tournament runs, the common ingredient has always been a prolific and uber-efficient offense. The corresponding defenses have been good, not great, but solid enough to keep Michigan competitive on that side of the ball.

Welp, that historical identity has been completely debunked by the 2017-18 Wolverines. Put simply, Michigan has gotten this far because of the ability to get stops consistently, which they've done at one of the highest rates in the country all season long - the stingy defense has shined particularly bright over the last two weeks as the offense has mysteriously gone AWOL in three of Michigan's four tournament games.  Excluding the otherworldly shooting performance against Texas A&M, the Wolverines posted a lackluster 0.92, 0.98 and 0.91 points per possession against Montana, Houston and Florida State, respectively.

The interesting dynamic here is that there appears to be a common denominator in the makeup of those three opponents: Each utilizes an athletic and extended perimeter defense that disrupts opposing offenses with 'in-your-face' pressure and places a strong emphasis on running shooters off the 3-point line.

Good news Loyola fans - under the tutelage of Porter Moser, your Ramblers are actually cut from a similar cloth...

Michigan on Offense: Given how the defensive DNA of Montana, Houston and Florida State noticeably hindered Michigan's offense, let's examine how the aforementioned extended pressure was able to take the Wolverines out of their comfort zone (warning: excessive GIFs enclosed below).

The clip below captures just how discombobulated Michigan's half-court offense was for most of the Elite 8 showdown against the Seminoles. As you can see, basic cuts to get open were closely shadowed by the athletic and rangy Florida State defense, which warped Michigan out of their offensive rythym:

While Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman each made just enough individual plays to sneak past the 'Noles last round, the Wolverines tallied just 8 total assists as a team - this was their lowest single game tally since being clubbed by Nebraska back on January 18th.

On a few occasions, Michigan was able to settle in to their half-court sets by incepting the offense through a high pick-and-roll with Zavier Simpson as the dribbler and Mo Wagner as the screener. The first example below shows how the offense begins to take form when Wagner opts to roll off the screen and dive hard through the lane. This forces the defender opposite the ball to provide help-side support and, in turn, leads to a defensive breakdown after Abdur-Rahkman beats his man off the skip pass from Simpson. 

Next, we see the alternative action off the high ball screen, a classic pick-n-pop, where Wagner has thrived all season as the beneficiary of open catch-and-shoot looks.

Per synergy, Wagner (or 'The Big Berlin' as I like to call him) is one of the most efficient players in the country in spot-up situations, much of which stems from the above pick-n-pop or 'pick-n-fade' action. On the flipside, Wagner grades out as an average to below-average post player, ranking in the 36th percentile nationally in points per possession on post-ups.

While Florida State's defense was superb in this game, they certainly benefited from Wagner's ice-cold shooting night (0/7 from 3) as Beilein tried repeatedly to stretch the more plodding Florida State trees away from the rim. This is where Loyola is well-equipped to challenge Wagner's lethal long range jumper, which is far and away his most efficient means of scoring. When Cameron Krutwig is off-the-floor, the Ramblers trot out a smaller, but more fleet-of-foot frontcourt with Aundre Jackson and Donte Ingram at the 4 and 5, respectively. Their quickness should allow them to close out in a hurry to Wagner in situations when he flares off a ball screen, thus reducing time and space for Wagner to get off a clean look.

Loyola on Offense: Much like Michigan, Loyola prefers to work deep into the shot-clock on most possessions, rather than race the ball up the floor in transition. The secret recipe to the Ramblers offense is a collection of multi-positional guards and wings, all of whom are capable drivers, passers and shooters. This versatility spread across all 5 positions keeps opposing defenses on their heels at all times since any player on the floor is a threat to drive, shoot or cut to the basket.

Porter Moser's perpetual motion offense is a match-made-in-heaven for the personnel on this roster. Stylistically, Loyola's offense bears a striking resemblance to what Bill Self runs a lot for Kansas, which is characterized by a steady stream of dribble weaves and hand-offs:

While the non-stop movement can occasionally manifest into chaos and careless decision-making (Loyola's 218th ranked offensive turnover rate is the highest of the Final 4 teams), the unpredictability of the Ramblers' offense has proven to be effective against some top-flight defenses so far in the tournament.

But don't bet on that same confusion impacting a John Beilein coached team, especially with a week to prepare. After all, it's no fluke that the Wolverines enter this bout with the nation's 4th best defense overall, per kenpom.com. Simpson, Abdur-Rahkman and Matthews are all excellent 1-v-1 individual defenders who are tough to beat off-the-bounce and Wagner is quick enough laterally to hold his own on the perimeter. As is true on the other side of the ball, easy buckets will be hard to come by - Loyola must be patient and work the ball side-to-side to stretch out Michigan's defense and open up subsequent drive-and-kick opportunities.

Key Factor(s): Big Cam Krutwig, the 6'9 260 pound freshman from Algonquin, IL. Krutwig's impact often comes in short, quick spurts, but he adds a whole new dynamic to Loyola's offense when he's on the floor. A simple box score scan doesn't reflect his true value, but know that during the Ramblers' magical tournament run thus far, Krutwig is scoring at a rate of 17 points per 40 minutes.

Per synergy, Krutwig grades out in the 92nd percentile nationally in points per possession on post-ups, but that only covers his effectiveness as a scorer - he's also a precise and willing passer out of the post, particularly when opposing guards double or dig down off their man. This could be a problem for Beilein, who will likely have to slot Wagner on Krutwig when both are on the floor at the same time. The advanced data is not kind to Wagner's post defense, which graded out in just the 25th percentile nationally on points per possession allowed basis.

It's also worth noting that Wagner has racked up 4 fouls in three of the Wolverines four tournament games so far (though he has yet to foul out). Don't be surprised if Moser looks to feed Krutwig early and often (example shown below) to take advantage of one of the few cracks in an otherwise superb Michigan defense.

Final Predictions: The two-way chess match between these premier coaches (Moser is on that trajectory) should make this game a basketball junkie's dream. Both teams have reached this point because of multiple elite defensive efforts and each is well-constructed to stop what the other does on offense. And when you consider that both Loyola and Michigan prefer to play at a snail's pace, points should be scarce and the margin should be tight the whole way through. 

SU Pick: Michigan
ATS Pick: Loyola +5.5
O/U Pick: Under 129.5