Saturday’s Elite Eight Mega Preview: Will Michigan Roll to the Final Four?
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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You want chaos? We’ve got chaos. Saturday night’s pairing of Elite Eight teams entered the tournament with odds of 600-1 (Loyola-Chicago), 300-1 (Kansas State), 280-1 (Florida State) and 10-1 (Michigan) to win the tournament.
Which teams will still be alive come Sunday morning? Our ragtag crew of hoops aficionados has some thoughts. Below, we will examine the matchups on both ends of the floor, look at trends, interesting nuggets and sharp action and provide our experts’ favorite bets on Saturday’s games.
Check back here up until game time for insight into last-minute sharp action, significant line moves and any other betting market info.
Let’s get to it!
All spreads as of Saturday morning.
#11 Loyola-Chicago vs. #9 Kansas State (-1) | O/U: 126.5
Atlanta, GA | 6:09 p.m. ET on TBS
By Jordan Majewski
When Loyola Chicago has the ball
Ramblers coach Porter Moser has an uncanny ability to re-work a game plan on the fly. He has clearly been the best coach in this tournament. As I’ve mentioned in practically every preview I’ve written about the Ramblers this season (which is probably in the dozens at this point), Moser employs the same 4-out, 1-in ball-screen motion offense that he learned from his days with the legendary Rick Majerus. That means the Ramblers’ offense is all about spacing the half court, driving and kicking and making the extra pass on the perimeter after forcing the defense to collapse. Majerus would call that “settin’ ‘em up and knockin’ ’em down.”
This is an incredibly patient offense. Just go back and watch Loyola’s game on Thursday, which featured multiple drives off ball screens until Clayton Custer or Ben Richardson found a matchup to take to the rim or kick out upon Nevada over-helping. The result was Custer and Richardson going 10-of-11 from 2, remarkable rim efficiency for a backcourt.
Because Moser and his staff are always adjusting, the Ramblers also pushed the ball up the floor whenever possible in the Sweet 16, recognizing Nevada’s inherent deficiencies in transition defense. The Ramblers were 225th nationally in transition rate entering the game last night, per hoopmath.com, and Nevada seemed unprepared for Loyola’s willingness to push the ball. The overarching point here is that Moser and the Ramblers are essentially chameleons, willing to adjust to what the defense is giving them, and doing it successfully.
So what are the strengths of Kansas State’s defense? First and foremost, the Wildcats are an aggressive ball-screen defense. Bruce Weber swarmed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on every single ball screen, and the 6-foot-6 Kentucky point guard coughed up five live-ball turnovers that dramatically altered the outcome of the game. K-State guards Kam Stokes, Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra will do the same exact thing to Custer and Richardson, and how the Ramblers’ outstanding guards handle it could very well be the crux of this game. KSU has held pick-and-roll ball-handlers to a paltry .65 points per possession this year, per Synergy. KSU’s defense thrives at forcing you to play deep into the shot clock, something young Kentucky simply couldn’t do in the half court. However, that’s the clear strength of Loyola’s patient offense.
When Kansas State has the ball
At this point, it’s unlikely to expect much from K-State star forward Dean Wade (foot injury), but he’s precisely the type of player who gives Loyola big man Cam Krutwig issues on the defensive end, as the skilled-but-lumbering center struggles to defend in screen-and-roll/pick-and-pop situations. Moser left Krutwig on the bench in the second half against Nevada’s 5-out offense. If Wade isn’t available, or hurting the team more than he’s helping by trying to play, Krutwig will certainly be able to stay on the floor. That will free up outstanding Ramblers forward Aundre Jackson to stay on Sneed, who exploited Kentucky’s lack of lateral quickness all night in KSU’s Sweet 16 win.
Simply put, 6-foot-9 K-State forward Makol Mawien doesn’t have the skill of Wade, and Krutwig is actually a very stout post defender, which is the only spot on the floor Mawien can have an impact upon offensively. Without Wade on the floor, the Ramblers’ pick-and-roll defense becomes switchable 1 through 4. That’s a big deal with Weber shifting to a pick-and-roll-heavy attack in lieu of his traditional motion offense. I’ve been saying all tournament that Wade’s health is key. KSU keeps on winning anyway, but in this matchup, it really could be the difference.
No. 1 Thing I’m Watching For
Will Loyola have the lead at the half?
Loyola has won three games as a No. 11 seed, all mini upsets. The Ramblers have not trailed at the half in any of the three. Halftime leads are correlated with wins for most teams, but Loyola takes it to a different level. In fact, the Ramblers are 25-0 in their past 25 games when leading at the half. That streak dates back to January of 2017 against Missouri State. The Ramblers are a well-coached team with an outstanding point guard. If they have the lead at the half tomorrow night, I think they make it 26 straight.
By Wes Reynolds
When you are playing for a chance to go to the Final Four, there’s really no such thing as a “letdown” spot per se. Both teams will, of course, be highly motivated, but I think Kansas State could have a tough time refocusing after beating blue-blood Kentucky in what was really a no-lose situation. K-State will be largely expected to beat Loyola, which is a different dynamic for Weber’s Wildcats, particularly with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
By Bryan Mears
Jordan brought up a great point with Loyola’s ability to adapt. On the season, the Ramblers rank just 218th in percentage of shots taken in transition opportunities, although they are an impressive 13th in efficiency on them. They spaced out Nevada and pushed the ball, which they obviously viewed as a potential strength. It could be again: Kansas State ranks just 182nd in transition defense, and the Wildcats allow a ton of 3s and shots at the rim. Loyola essentially had a layup line all game long against a Nevada squad that couldn’t adapt to its spacing and pace. You can be sure the Ramblers will press on Kansas State’s weaknesses. These teams are very slow-paced, ranking 319th and 307th in average tempo, but that might not accurately represent Loyola’s game plan again. I’ll be watching to see whether this over/under moves up or down closer to the game.
Did You Know?
By Evan Abrams
Kansas State has allowed less than 40% shooting in each of its three NCAA Tournament wins. Since the 2007 NCAA Tournament, teams listed as the favorite in the Elite Eight (K-State is -1.5) after allowing less than 45% shooting over their previous three games are 9-18-1 ATS (33.3%), failing to cover the spread by 3.5 PPG.
By John Ewing
Since 2005, double-digit seeds in the Elite Eight or later in the NCAA Tournament have gone 3-6 straight-up and 5-4 ATS. They have been an underdog of more than three points in each matchup.
Late in the tournament, Elite Eight or beyond, betting against the public has been a profitable strategy. The team getting fewer than 50% of spread tickets has gone 51-37-2 (58%) ATS since 2005. At the time of this writing, the Wildcats were getting 68% of tickets (see live numbers here).
By PJ Walsh
The game opened as a pick’em and early bettors have jumped on Kansas State. Sixty-four percent of tickets and 73% of dollars wagered have taken the Wildcats at the time of writing, moving the line to K-State -1. Check out live ticket/money percentages here.
My Favorite Bet
Stuck: Loyola Chicago +1.5
Wes: Loyola Chicago +1.5
Jordan: Loyola Chicago +1.5
Mears: Loyola Chicago +1.5
#9 Florida State vs. #3 Michigan (-4.5) | O/U: 143.5
Los Angeles, CA | 8:49 p.m. ET on TBS
By Jordan Majewski
When Florida State has the ball
The Noles look to attack downhill and in transition whenever possible, attempting shots at the rim at the 36th-highest rate nationally and shots in transition at the 30th-highest rate, per hoop-math.com. Coach Leonard Hamilton is looking to exploit his team’s massive size and athleticism advantage on every possession, forcing both the defense (and the officials) to play a physical game. Hamilton has seven long rim-attackers he rotates in and out around 7-foot-4 center Christ Koumadje, who is spelled by an elite shot blocker (Mfiondu Kabengele was stellar in rim protection against Gonzaga, swatting four shots in limited minutes).
FSU can attack from any spot 1 through 4, and against Gonzaga, Terance Mann finally looked 100% recovered from his groin strain (18 points on 8-of-13 shooting). The Noles have typically been a one-on-one iso-heavy team, but this is the most cohesive offense I’ve seen Hamilton put on the floor in years, perhaps because FSU doesn’t have the designated “lottery” guys of previous seasons.
Michigan has been elite defensively: In fact, it is currently playing the best defense of any John Beilein team ever. Per hoop-math, Michigan allows the 10th-lowest FG attempt rate at the rim, while also aggressively taking away the 3-point line, allowing the sixth-lowest 3-point attempt rate nationally. This is a sabermetric defense through and through, as the Wolverines take away the two most efficient shots in the game, forcing a plethora of 2-point jumpers.
Forwards Moe Wagner and John Teske are both poor post defenders, but Hamilton doesn’t run his offense through his unpolished post players, as they’re limited strictly to the receiving end of lobs and offensive put-backs (speaking of which, Michigan is an elite defensive rebounding team). While Michigan isn’t as athletic 1 through 5 as FSU, the Wolverines are extremely well-suited to limit the Noles’ propensity to attack the rim and run in transition. All the talk before the Texas A&M matchup was about the Aggies’ ability to use their length and athleticism to overwhelm Michigan. That clearly didn’t happen, and the Noles have an eerily similar pregame narrative.
When Michigan has the ball
Through its first two games of the tournament, Michigan was struggling to generate offense efficiently through Beilein’s renowned 2 Guard offense and screen-and-roll action with Wagner. The Wolverines simply couldn’t hit jump shots, going 13-of-46 from deep against Montana and Houston. Of course, that all changed against Texas A&M, as the Wolverines went 14-of-24 from 3, and we saw how truly terrifying this offense can be when jump shots are falling. Although everyone knows what Beilein is going to run, the Wolverines are so methodical and execute at such a high level, it’s impossible to fully prepare for that 2 Guard offense, especially on short rest. It’s why Beilein’s teams have thrived in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.
With that said, FSU’s length and athleticism have been advantages on defense in this tournament, and the Noles are particularly strong defending screen-and-roll action with their ability to switch 1 through 4. The difference here though is that Michigan’s offense forces to you to defend on the perimeter 1 through 5, and the Wolverines’ ability to generate offense in a half-court game — and UM will certainly make this a half-court game — gives Michigan the edge over FSU’s athleticism.
By Wes Reynolds
In my Thursday column, I wrote about “water finding its level” with Michigan’s offense, which performed below standards in the first two rounds. Well, water not only found its level, it overflowed, with Michigan posting 1.38 points per possession against a very solid Texas A&M defense. Michigan made 14 triples, including 10 in the first half, and shot 62% overall. These numbers will be very hard to duplicate the next time out.
By Bryan Mears
Michigan is well-coached, never turns it over and has a top-three defense. That’s a great recipe for success in the tournament, although I’d be interested to see how the Wolverines would fare in a close game with the Final Four on the line. They barely got past Houston in Round 2, shooting 35.6 percent from the field. They went 14-of-20 from the free throw line in that affair, which is surprisingly a big weakness for them this season. The Wolverines rank 326th in team free-throw percentage, knocking down only 66.0 percent of their attempts. That isn’t a big deal when it’s a back-and-forth affair like it was with Houston, or when the game is a blowout like it was with Texas A&M. But if Michigan has to hold a small lead in the final two minutes, especially as a larger favorite in this one, Florida State could be a sneaky cover candidate.
Did You Know?
By Evan Abrams
When Beilein is the lower seed in the NCAA Tournament, he is 10-4-1 against the spread (71.4%) covering by 6.6 PPG. When Beilein is playing a power conference team in this spot, he’s 5-1 straight-up, with his only loss coming in his last Elite Eight appearance in 2014 vs. John Calipari and Kentucky.
Leonard Hamilton has coached in 18 NCAA Tournament games. The underdog has gone 13-5 ATS, including 8-1 ATS in the Round of 32 or later.
By John Ewing
Michigan rolled past Texas A&M, 99-72, in the Sweet 16. Teams that won their previous tournament game by 20 or more points have gone 61-70-3 (47%) ATS in their next game since 2005. If they are popular favorites (getting more than 50% of bets) like the Wolverines, the team has gone 32-48 (40%) ATS. Check out live betting percentage numbers here.
By PJ Walsh
Bettors are lining up to lay the points with Michigan, with 74% of spread bets backing the Wolverines at the time of writing (see live betting percentages here). Interestingly, the line has yet to move off the opener of Michigan -4.5, which is likely to change should the action remain this one-sided.
My Favorite Bet
Stuck: Under 143.5
Wes: Florida State +4.5; Under 143.5
Jordan: Michigan -4.5, Under 143.5
Top photo: Michigan forward Moritz Wagner