SAN ANTONIO – The Michigan basketball team is two wins away from a national championship, and the next team standing in its way is the Cinderella story of the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan and Loyola will square off in an unlikely Final Four meeting after the Ramblers came out of a region that included No. 1 overall seed Virginia, defensive powerhouse Cincinnati and rosters loaded with NBA talent, such as Arizona and Kentucky.
Amazingly, Loyola didn't have to play any of those teams, but that doesn't make this matchup any easier for the No. 3 seed Wolverines.
The Ramblers earned their spot in the Final Four by knocking off four single-digit seeds, including SEC regular season co-champion Tennessee. Loyola has a 32-5 record this season.
Michigan is the favorite in this matchup, but Loyola has proven it can knock off high-major teams. Here's a look at how the Wolverines can win their 14th straight game and advance to the championship.
Let Wagner beat Krutwig
Guard play takes center stage every year in the NCAA Tournament, but when Moritz Wagner is involved, the matchup in the middle sets the tone.
Wagner and Loyola freshman Cameron Krutwig will start opposite each other Saturday, but they couldn't be more different. While Wagner is an athletic big man who loves to shoot from deep, Krutwig is a bruiser who bangs in the paint.
Michigan has been inconsistent on the offensive end this tournament, and Wagner is the X-factor. He was held to 29 total points against Montana, Houston and Florida State while picking up four fouls in each game. The Wolverines averaged 61 points.
But when Wagner exploded for 21 points on 8-12 shooting against Texas A&M, Michigan dropped 99 points on a top-15 defense.
Krutwig is a good player, but this is the type of matchup Wagner can exploit. If the 260-pound freshman is slow getting out to the 3-point line, Wagner might have another hot shooting night, which opens up the entire offense.
Wagner, on the other hand, needs to avoid getting into foul trouble against Krutwig, who plays a physical style and shoots nearly 60 percent from the floor. Matching up with Michigan backup center Jon Teske is more Krutwig's speed, even though he's a few inches shorter.
Lock down perimeter
Perhaps the most important matchup of the game will pit Loyola's strengths against Michigan's strengths. The Ramblers' offense runs on the ability to drive into the lane and kick the ball out to 3-point shooters, while Michigan has had an elite perimeter defense all year.
Zavier Simpson is the key cog to Michigan's defense, as he pesters the ball handler and keeps the opponent from getting comfortable in its offensive set. If Loyola's guards are unable to get penetration, the team's dangerous shooters won't get the open looks that have carried them to this point.
Michigan has also been excellent at running teams off the line and recovering in help defense. Duncan Robinson and Charles Matthews are particularly effective as help-side defenders, and their length could be a problem for Loyola.
Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are willing defenders, and they've had a week to prepare for the Ramblers.
Clayton Custer is a deadly 3-point shooter at the point guard position, making 45.4 percent of his attempts. He leads the Ramblers in scoring and assists, so Simpson's defense will be particularly impactful on Saturday.
Win fast-break battle
Throughout the NCAA Tournament, Loyola has ambushed opponents with quick offensive outbursts fueled by the fast break. Coach Porter Moser typically has four or five players who can run and shoot on the floor, so it's critical to get back on defense.
Michigan is about as good as it gets in transition defense, as evidenced by the effort against Florida State in the Elite Eight. FSU is one of the longest, most athletic teams in the nation, and Michigan didn't allow a single fast-break point in the defensive slugfest.
It's difficult to score against Michigan in a half-court game, and both teams want to play at a slow tempo, so fast-break points could be at a premium. Michigan will try to dominate the battle as it did against FSU.
Take advantage of switches
Loyola owns the No. 19 defense in the nation, according to KenPom, and there are very few individual weaknesses on that end of the floor.
The Ramblers switch almost every screen, so even though they're solid in one-on-one defense, there will be opportunities for Michigan to take advantage of certain matchups. Matthews, for example, has flourished late in the shot clock by getting into the paint, planting, and finishing around the rim.
Simpson and Abdur-Rahkman are quick enough to get by defenders after switches, and that could open up Robinson, Wagner and Jordan Poole from 3-point range. The mismatches won't be glaring on the offensive end, but when Loyola makes a bad switch, Michigan can take advantage.
Dominate both sides of halftime
There hasn't been much to criticize about John Beilein's team during this 13-game winning streak, but Michigan has struggled at times to close out the first half.
While the final few minutes before halftime might not stand out when the game is close, or if Michigan still has the lead, that stretch can set the tone for the second half. For example, despite falling behind 10-0 against Montana, Michigan played well right before the half and immediately after the half, and the game was never in doubt.
Texas A&M's only chance to get back in the game last weekend was to make a run before or after the break. But Michigan weathered the storm, held on to its 20-point lead and enjoyed a stress-free Sweet 16 victory.
This will be particularly important against the Ramblers, who are capable of going on big runs and riding momentum to a huge lead. That's exactly what happened in the first half against Kansas State, when Loyola turned a 5-point lead into a 12-point lead in the final six minutes.
In a slow-tempo game, playing from behind would be a huge disadvantage, so Michigan needs to execute in the most important moments.