And then there was one. I mean, yes, there are four teams, but in what has shaped up to be another wild and unpredictable NCAA tournament, we’re left with only one lottery prospect in the final weekend of play. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other players worth tracking. In fact, a handful of prominent fringe-first-round and early-second-round hopefuls remain.
Though the prestige of one game may outweigh the other, both should be compelling in their own right. Draft diehards will find gold to mine for the Mavericks’ second-round selections... and maybe a future Mavericks’ lottery pick. We have three more chances to watch college prospects in game setting, from Saturday to Monday. Here are the future draftees to keep your eye on.
Michigan vs Loyola-Chicago - 5:09 CT (TBS)
Michigan was a dark-horse pick to make the Final Four from the start, thanks to the momentum they carried to the tournament. Over the last two weeks we’ve seen some very different sides to the Wolverines — both the unbelievably good and the unbelievably mediocre.
They had solid performances from supporting cast members in previous rounds, but John Beilein will need one or both of Mo Wagner and Charles Matthews to show up Saturday against Loyola. Junior guard Matthews, who started his college career at Kentucky, has been a nice counterpart to Wagner in his first season at Michigan. He’s played solid in the tournament, averaging 16.5 points per game in the four games. But if the Wolverines are going to exploit a mismatch it will be from the standout leader, junior big man Mo Wagner.
Playing a pick-and-pop game as a stretch five, Wagner has a smooth stroke from long range. Whether or not Loyola-Chicago head coach Porter Moser tries to put the 6’9 Cameron Krutwig (who has solid footwork but is more comfortable on the block) on him could determine the kind of game Wagner has. It’s possible that Moser may opt to use seniors Donte Ingram or Aundre Jackson on Wagner if he exposes Krutwig from deep. As a career 39 percent three point shooter, Wagner is an ideal stretch five offensively, but he still needs to prove himself a capable rebounder and defender for scouts to take him seriously as an early second-round selection.
Loyola plays a compact and lethal team defense. And that is the motor for their offense, where they play four out on the perimeter. Ingram remains the most intriguing prospect from the bunch, and he could use this massive stage to gather some workout invites. But bottom line: the Ramblers play pure team basketball and you never know who will be the star on any given night. And that’s what has made their run, Sister Jean aside, so much fun to watch for the basketball purists out there. This should be a fun one.
Villanova vs Kansas - 7:49 CT (TBS)
Ending up with chalk on this end feels like quite an accomplishment, considering the chaos of the opposite side of the bracket. Villanova and Kansas both earned their way to San Antonio in some tough Elite Eight battles. Nova faced an athletic, elite defense in Texas Tech and had to overcome the disappearance of their three point shot (4-of-24, 16 percent from deep) to pull away from the Red Raiders late. And the Jayhawks went to overtime with the young and talented Blue Devils, with some clutch shots from Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman, who scored all 13 of Kansas’ points in overtime (32 points on the game).
Just like Villanova’s last three matchups, this game will feature two elite perimeter teams. For the Wildcats, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo will try to attack and contain the Jayhawks platoon of Devonte’ Graham, Malik Newman, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and LaGerald Vick. And with two veteran squads across the backcourt, expect a heavyweight battle.
Bridges had an efficient and productive tournament until he faced Tech last weekend. Villanova seemed never to get in to a rhythm, affected by a stout, lengthy, athletic defense from the Red Raiders — Bridges seemed to feel it (12 points, 30 percent from the field, 0-of-5 from three). We still saw flashes of what makes Mikal Bridges so great, and why he should be considered as early as fifth in the draft. And Villanova will rely upon him heavily on both ends Saturday night. Look for Bridges to try to quiet Malik Newman, who has been scorching in postseason play; averaging 23 points and five rebounds, shooting an insane 55 percent from three (on 51 attempts) over the seven games in the conference and NCAA tournaments.
The marquee duel will be at the point, where player of the year candidates Jalen Brunson and Devonte’ Graham will go head to head. Both figure to be middle of the draft selections this summer, and this stage is a perfect showcase for two of the most seasoned point guards in college basketball. In an under the radar matchup, look to see who Kansas puts on redshirt freshman Omari Spellman, who acts as Villanova’s big man but also stretches the floor — and conversely how does Villanova contain Kansas mountain Udoka Azubuike?
A lot is on the line for these players, not just for program success, but gaining the momentum they hope will carry them to the next level.