By Jason Keidel
So Cinderella finally hit a hard midnight, her slipper slapped away for good.
The darlings of March Madness, Loyola (IL), a microscopic school in Chicago, have finally lost. And the most charming chaplain in the history of the NCAA tournament, Sister Jean, is now going back to the Windy City after riding the power of prayer all the way to the Final Four.
If they were to stumble, however, it seems fitting that they lost to perhaps the hottest team in America. While Loyola may have risen from Lake Michigan like a long-lost dinosaur, the Wolverines were hardly a long-shot, or the byproduct of a lucky shot, steal, or deflection. Aside from Arizona – who got bounced in the first round – Michigan was the other “sleeper” team, a non-top-seed who was a trendy pick by Big Ten devotees.
Some thought that Michigan was exactly the type of team that Loyola could beat, playing a similar style of rapid ball movement. But Michigan’s defense has been their best weapon, holding teams to a paltry 58.6 points per game on their way to the championship game. Indeed, they held Loyola to 57 points, their lowest total of the tournament.
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They won’t feel it now, through the abject pain of losing when they were 60 minutes from their first title since 1963, but the Ramblers have done more than make an improbable run to the Final Four. It was an unforgettable journey to the edge of April, and into our hearts. While we wax poetic about the other 11th-seeds to make the Final Four – VCU, George Mason, and LSU – none had the innate charm and blue-collar appeal of Loyola. No other team will have a 98-year-old den mother like Jean Dolores Schmidt. None will walk, talk, and play with the authentic innocence of these young men, who were confident without being indignant, and didn’t live by the nauseating, recycled mantra: “No one believes in our squad! So it’s us against the world!”
The other half of the Final Four was not nearly as turbulent or romantic. Two top-seeds, Villanova and Kansas, who have their mail forwarded to the Sweet 16 every year, squared off to crown the other side of the championship game. And while Kansas surprised some of us by bouncing Duke from the regional finals when it seemed like Duke was a bit better and more balanced, they ran into a hardwood buzz saw in Villanova.
The Wildcats are kicking tail and taking names. They won the talent-laden Big East tournament and are hammering opponents through five rounds here. While the other Final Four teams had some heart-stopping moments and slim winning margins, Villanova is vaporizing the field. Each of their five victories have come by double-digits, with an average margin of 15.8 per game. They whipped Kansas, 95-79. Out of the field of 64, only Michigan (99) and Xavier (102) scored more points in a single game. Now, the Wildcats are facing the Wolverines – the only team that could be as sizzling as they are.
We love March Madness for myriad reasons. Among them is it’s a pure meritocracy. In single-elimination scenarios, maybe the best team in the nation over five months doesn’t win every year. But no one gets to the Final Four and beyond by accident. For all the grumbling about worthy teams – such as Notre Dame and Oklahoma State – getting snubbed from the tournament, they weren’t going to elbow their way to April 2.
While it would have been fun to see if the Ramblers could ramble on for two more games and chop down that final net, they weren’t the best team. And you’d be challenged to find two teams playing better, for longer, than Villanova and Michigan. Isn’t that what we want from our favorite sports? And isn’t that what gives March Madness its adrenaline-draining intensity and emotional authority every year?
As for my title game prediction, I’m rolling with the Wildcats in a close one, 80-76, taking home their second title in the last three years.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.