Scott Phillips

Loyola is getting the headlines, but here are five other local Final Four angles


Loyola is getting the headlines, but here are five other local Final Four angles

Loyola has dominated the local Final Four talk over the last several days. But while the Ramblers have taken the Chicago sports scene by storm, there are still plenty of other angles to keep an eye on during this weekend's action in San Antonio—especially if you’re a Bulls fan.

The Bulls have two first-round picks in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft and there are also plenty of Chicagoland area players and coaches who are contributing to Final Four teams.

Here's a look at five local Final Four angles outside of Loyola to keep track of this weekend.

1. Bulls NBA draft prospects

One of the main reasons for Chicago fans to watch the Final Four this weekend is to see some of the potential targets the Bulls could be looking at in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.

Most of the elite one-and-done prospects have been eliminated from the field. But there are still some intriguing future first- and second-round picks to keep an eye on in San Antonio.

Villanova junior Mikal Bridges is the most highly-touted NBA draft prospect in the Final Four as the versatile 6-foot-7 forward projects as a perfect "three-and-d" prospect at the next level. Shooting 43 percent from three-point range and sporting a 7-foot wingspan, Bridges has some intriguing intangibles that could make him worth a serious look with the Bulls' first pick in the lottery. Bridges currently projects as a potential top-10 pick.

Besides Bridges, there isn't a first-round lock playing in the Final Four this year but a few others could sneak into that range over the next few months. Wildcat junior point guard Jalen Brunson (more on him in a moment) is a potential late first-round pick if he decides to go pro after this season. The son of former NBA veteran Rick Brunson is a lethal perimeter shooter and a crafty floor general with a knack for winning big games.

Kansas has a trio of players in Devonte' Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman who could get 2018 NBA Draft looks. Graham, a point guard, and Mykhailiuk, a wing, are both experienced four-year players for the Jayhawks. Both are viewed as potential second-round picks at the moment. Newman, a redshirt sophomore and former McDonald's All-American, has generated national attention with a red-hot recent stretch. The 6-foot-3 Newman could play himself into the 2018 draft if he continues to knock down perimeter shots at a high level.

Most of the 2018 NBA Draft prospects are on the right side of the bracket but Michigan junior big man Moritz Wagner is also an intriguing NBA draft prospect. The 6-foot-11 Wagner stretches the floor and he's also improved defensively during his time at Michigan.

2. Jalen Brunson gets another shot at a title

Local audiences should already be familiar with Jalen Brunson thanks to his prolific high school career at Stevenson.

During his four-year varsity career with the Patriots, Brunson won an IHSA Class 4A state title, Mr. Basketball in Illinois honors and he was selected as a McDonald's All-American.

Brunson has continued his winning ways at Villanova as he already helped the Wildcats win a national championship in 2016. Also named national Player of the Year from some publications, Brunson has been arguably the best overall player in college hoops this season.

With three straight IHSA Final Four appearances and two NCAA Final Fours in three seasons, Brunson has been to the Final Four in five of his last six seasons of competitive basketball.

3. Charles Matthews gets a chance to shine at Michigan

Former St. Rita star Charles Matthews is making the most of his new opportunity with Michigan this season. After starting his college career at Kentucky during the 2015-16 season, Matthews opted to transfer so he could get more stable playing time.

Sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations, Matthews returned this season as a key two-way wing for the Wolverines. Putting up 13.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, Matthews is perhaps Michigan's best athlete.

Matthews will be a key for the Wolverines on the defensive end as he'll likely be asked to defend multiple perimeter threats for Loyola during the Final Four.

4. Familiar faces on the sidelines

The Final Four will also feature some familiar faces on the sidelines. Kansas head coach Bill Self and assistant coach Jerrance Howard both spent time coaching at Illinois earlier in their careers.

Howard, a Peoria High grad, played four years at Illinois as well.

Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich also has local connections. The LaSalle-Peru graduate coached at the high school level at Joliet West before moving on to the college ranks before the 2013-14 season. Yaklich spent four seasons on the Illinois State coaching staff before taking a job with the Wolverines before the 2017-18 season.

5. Kansas redshirt guard Charlie Moore awaits his chance

He won't be participating in the Final Four this weekend, but Kansas guard Charlie Moore has been a valuable member of the team's practice squad during his redshirt season.

The Mr. Basketball in Illinois winner in 2016, Moore played at Cal last season before transferring to Kansas last offseason. The former Morgan Park star had to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer regulations. Moore should be a key player for the Jayhawks next season as he'll be asked to help replace senior starting point guard Devonte' Graham.

Five ways Loyola became a Final Four team

Five ways Loyola became a Final Four team

Loyola's Cinderella run to San Antonio has been fun to watch for local and casual fans the past few weeks.

The Ramblers are only the third double-digit seed to play in the Final Four the last 12 years, but Loyola has proven themselves to be legitimate over the past two weeks. Taking down teams from the ACC, Big 12, SEC and Mountain West to make it to college basketball's biggest stage, Loyola has knocked off some quality competition.

Although many of Loyola's NCAA tournament wins came down to heroic late shots and close finishes, Loyola's numbers and roster makeup are that of a team that was built for postseason success. Head coach Porter Moser and his staff have helped Loyola recruit a unique roster filled with different personalities that has helped the Ramblers develop a strong team on both sides of the ball.

Here's a look at five of the ways Loyola became a Final Four team this season.

Loyola is very unselfish on offense

As a mid-major team in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Ramblers don't have a roster filled with NBA prospects and big-time athletes. Loyola is able to make up for the lack of high-major athleticism and size with a high degree of skill on the offensive end.

It starts with the team's unselfishness.

Loyola is one of the best passing teams in the country. The Ramblers earned assists on 60 percent of their made field goals this season -- which is 24th in the country out of 351 teams. Making the extra pass and generating "hockey assists" (a Moser favorite which technically isn't counted in basketball), you will often see Loyola's offense pass up a good shot for a better shot.

The Ramblers are also loaded with perimeter shooters 

It doesn't hurt that Loyola has a roster filled with talented perimeter shooters. At 40.2 percent from three-point range as a team this season, the Ramblers are ninth in the country from long range -- which is a deadly weapon to have for a slow-paced team.

Seven of Loyola's top eight rotation players shoot at least 36 percent from three-point range, meaning a number of different weapons can step up on any given night.

The team's small-ball lineup is also effective as a change-of-pace as 6-foot-5 Aundre Jackson and 6-foot-6 Donte Ingram can operate as the Ramblers' biggest players on the floor. That small lineup spaces the floor at all five spots on the offensive end and it can be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses with lumbering big men.

Loyola does a great job controlling the tempo

Speaking of Loyola's slow pace, the Ramblers do a great job of dictating the tempo. You won't often see Loyola games break out in a track meet and this is by design. The Ramblers play the No. 324 adjusted tempo in the country. That's why Loyola is often under 70 points with such an effective and efficient offense.

When Loyola's slow and methodical offense happens to rolling and knocking down shots -- as they were in the Elite Eight against Kansas State -- the team's tempo helps them maintain leads with long and quality possessions.

Really finding the perfect tempo over the last few months, Loyola hasn't allowed an opponent to score in the 70s over its last 10 games -- all wins.

The Ramblers have a tight and cohesive defensive unit

Newcomers to the Loyola bandwagon have spent the NCAA tournament glowing about the team's balanced and unselfish offense. But it's the Ramblers' defense that has been the backbone to success all season. With the No. 18 overall adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom, Loyola has been very effective at limiting open shots all season.

Loyola doesn't really have any rim protectors or turnover-creating guards, but the Ramblers make up for it with discipline and an ability to switch at multiple spots on the perimeter. Incredibly, Loyola hasn't had a single player foul out so far this season.

The aforementioned small-ball lineup can also serve as a quick defense that can switch at nearly every spot. Mostly a man-to-man team on defense, Loyola is also very good at limiting transition baskets since they don't crash the offensive glass very often.

Loyola put together a unique roster from all over the recruiting landscape

Many programs around college basketball typically adhere to one recruiting strategy. The Ramblers coaching staff searched high and low for the right players to fill out this roster.

Loyola has high school recruits who are local to Chicago and regional players from other parts of the Midwest. The Ramblers also have an international recruit (Bruno Skokna) to go along with a junior college transfer (Aundre Jackson). And on the four-year transfer market, the Ramblers have taken players from bigger leagues (Clayton Custer from Iowa State) and smaller conferences (Marques Townes from Fairleigh Dickinson).

Even the local Loyola recruits have a unique balance. Donte Ingram and Lucas Williamson come from Chicago Public League powerhouse Simeon and Whitney Young, respectively. Freshmen Cameron Krutwig and Christian Negron are from successful suburban programs in Jacobs and Larkin.

And seven of Loyola's players won state championships at the high school level -- a trait the coaching staff seeks out in potential recruits.

Moser and his staff didn't need to recruit top-100 national talents. They evaluated winning players with a high skill level from all levels of basketball to help them reach the Final Four.

Perimeter shooting is Loyola's key to advancing past Kansas State

Perimeter shooting is Loyola's key to advancing past Kansas State

Loyola and Kansas State are playing in the most unlikely Elite Eight in history when they face on Saturday night. A No. 9 seed has never played a No. 11 seed in the men's NCAA tournament.

The No. 11 seed Ramblers have generated national excitement as the double-digit seed one game away from the Final Four. But Loyola still has to win a tough matchup against one of the best defensive teams in the country in Bruce Weber's ballclub.

Tempo is still one of the major factors for Loyola playing in its ultimate comfort zone. Thankfully for the Ramblers, No. 9 seed Kansas State is an ideal tempo matchup. Both teams like to play very slow.

The new key for Loyola in the Elite Eight will come down to perimeter shooting. As a team this season, the Ramblers are just under 40 percent from distance. The long ball has been a big part of the team's unlikely tournament run through three games as well. With multiple floor spacers, Loyola has a lot of weapons on the perimeter.

Kansas State is going to seriously challenge the Ramblers on every shot from three-point range. The Wildcats are in the Elite Eight in-part because of their ability to defend teams off of the three-point line.

So far in the 2018 NCAA tournament, Kansas State has held opponents to 26 percent shooting (18-for-68) from three-point range. Kentucky was known as a shaky perimeter-shooting team this season. UMBC (38 percent) and Creighton (37 percent) were both respected groups who could space the floor at multiple spots. The Wildcats made all three teams shoot very poorly from the perimeter as Kansas State was able to win despite not playing its best on offense.

That means Loyola will have to work to generate open looks from three. And when the Ramblers get clean looks from the perimeter, they also need to knock them down to advance to San Antonio.

The magical run for Loyola has already made it to this point. And it could continue if the Ramblers can knock down enough threes to put the pressure on Kansas State.