We spoke with four coaches who have faced the teams in the Final Four and asked them to break down their strengths, weaknesses and make predictions on how the weekend will play out. They were granted anonymity for their honesty.
NO. 11 LOYOLA CHICAGO
Strengths: The most dangerous thing about their offense is they don’t take bad shots. That’s much harder than you’d think to do. Combine that with the fact that at all times they have five above-average passers on the floor and at least four above-average shooters on the floor, and that means that their passing lanes are open and the spacing is great. Their ability to drive closeouts and continue to make the extra pass is spectacular.
Weaknesses: Loyola has the No. 5 scoring defense in the country, as they hold teams to 62.1 points per game. A lot of that is because they have such long offensive possessions that it limits opponent scoring. They’re just good on defense, not great. Their defensive field-goal percentage is 41.4 percent, which is No. 41 nationally. The key to their defense is they switch from one (point guard) to four (power forward), which allows them to take away the opposition’s set plays with all the switching.
Most important player: Without a doubt, Clayton Custer. It’s not even close. He plays nearly the whole game, and they are a whole different team when he comes out, as most of the ball screen actions go through him. He’s their best playmaker, is really smart and can shoot and pass. I’m not sure who the second-most important player is.
X-factor: They don’t have one horrible defender to exploit, but Cameron Krutwig is prone to foul trouble. The game is going to come down to who makes shots and who stays out of foul trouble. They need to keep Krutwig out of foul trouble.
Prediction: I wasn’t surprised that Loyola won their first three games. I expected them to. This is easily the toughest matchup for Loyola compared to all the others they played. If I had to pick someone, it’d be Michigan.
NO. 3 MICHIGAN
Strengths: They put your defense in such miserable situations, as your normal pick-and-roll coverages aren’t going to be good enough. If you hard hedge or commit two guys to the ball, you’re going to give up an open shot. They’re very clever, as they don’t know if they’re going to set or slip the screen until you commit to your coverage. When you do, they get you in their Pandora’s box.
Weaknesses: Their power forwards are really susceptible to drives and physical play, which means you can isolate both Duncan Robinson and Isaiah Livers and take advantage of them. If you have a big guy who can score, go right at Moritz Wagner. One thing we noticed was that they’re unbelievably handsy and grabby. I was almost taken aback at how physical they are. You don’t expect it. It’s going to be a physical game, you have to be ready to fight in the streets.
Most important player: The first thing you need to do is figure out what you’re going to do with Moritz Wagner on ball screens. He can fall in love with the three, as he did against Florida State. (He shot 0 for 7 from 3-point range in that game). A key will be making Wagner take more threes than twos, as he doesn’t seem to want to deal with the low post.
X-factor: Jordan Poole shot 42-percent from 3-point range in Big Ten play, and we all saw what he did against Houston. He’s the obvious answer here.
Prediction: Loyola can beat their asses. Everyone saying this is a mismatch is wrong. Loyola has a bunch of like pieces, which screws up Michigan’s offense. It’s going to be a defensive-type game, which means that anyone can win. Look at the teams Michigan feasted on: Texas A&M, Purdue, Michigan State and Nebraska in the Big Ten tournament. If you play big like those teams, they are going to annihilate you. If you switch and junk it up and play almost guerrilla-warfare coverage on defense, they’ll struggle to score. If you can switch, which Loyola does 1 through 4, this game will be close.
NO. 1 KANSAS
Strengths: Watching them on film, they actually play four guards and one big and look like a mid-major team. They share the ball well, shoot it and run good stuff compared to most high-major teams. They shoot the 3-point shot so well, you need to construct your whole game plan around stopping that.
Weaknesses: When we played them, we felt like they were used to playing teams that didn’t run much set offense. When they did see set offenses, they’d get lost in simple actions. You can exploit the fact that their bigs weren’t comfortable being out on the perimeter. We felt like Udoka Azubuike wasn’t a very good basketball player. We felt like he’d be out of position on defense and was prone to turning it over or making bad decisions. He can, however, physically overpower you.
Most important player: Devonte’ Graham is clearly their best playmaker and passer. He’s not crazy athletic, but he’s so good at throwing lobs to big guys and hitting guys for open shots. The only way to slow him is to limit his assists as much as possible, make him shoot contested twos and avoid fouling him.
X-factor: We didn’t feel like Svi Mykhailiuk was much better than a guy you’d see in a mid-major program. He’s a four who really isn’t a four, and he spaces the floor. But once he puts it on the floor, his numbers get much, much worse. He’s a pretty good athlete, but he doesn’t finish well and doesn’t make shots off the dribble from 2-point or 3-point range.
Prediction: I think ‘Nova is going to win the whole thing. They’re almost robotic with how they do stuff, they’re so good at it. The way to beat them is to help on defense as little as possible, as they drive and kick, and everyone is willing to share and they don’t take any bad shots. Making them score over you one-on-one gives you the best chance. Physically you have to be able to do that.
NO. 1 VILLANOVA
Strengths: If there’s a weak link in your organization, you won’t beat them. They’re almost like an international team, with the skill level and the speed in which they cut – and every player on the floor can both shoot and post up. They are absolute killers, right down to the walk-ons or manager or GAs screaming out the scouts the moment you send someone to the scorer’s table. It’s an impressive deal when your managers are killers. On offense, you need to get out ahead of them in transition. You are not walking the ball up the floor on a repeated basis and breaking down their defense. It’s not happening.
Weaknesses: It’s not like they have absurd talent. They aren’t bums, but these aren’t the best athletes in college basketball. They are normal guys who give extraordinary effort. But they are trained, which means a lot. You need to make them over-help on drives or commit to too much help on the post, and then hope your spacing is good enough. You have to be able to shot fake, ball fake and go by them.
Most important player: Jalen Brunson is their best player, but Mikal Bridges is their most talented. He’ll surprise you with his length, and the fact that he can switch from the 1 to the 5. He can post up and is a lethal 3-point shooter. He’s lethal, man. He can make shots, is confident and always aggressive.
X-factor: Eric Paschall is a complete wildcard. He’s 6-foot-9, 255 pounds and is just a matchup nightmare. If he’s playing well, you don’t know who to put your best big-man defender on. Paschall gives them a different energy when he’s playing hard, as he’ll chase down offensive rebounds and impact the game in different ways.
Prediction: These two teams really mirror each other. Udoka Azubuike is a nightmare to chase around and he’s the kind of guy who can cause Villanova problems. Kansas has great shooting and won’t back down, and Bill Self is a great coach. But I’m taking Villanova. If it’s not enough, they have a Hall of Fame coach in Jay Wright and a storied program. Everyone in their organization is bought in and invested.
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