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Loyola-Chicago vs. Michigan
Kansas vs. Villanova

The first national semifinal game Saturday in San Antonio will pit Michigan, the Big Ten Tournament champion, against the finest the Missouri Valley Conference has to offer in Loyola-Chicago, which keeps rambling on through the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

Michigan is seeking its first national title since 1989 when it clipped Seton Hall in overtime at the Kingdome in Seattle thanks to a pair of free throws by Rumeal Robinson in the final seconds. Robinson was sent to the charity stripe by legendary referee John Clougherty, who clearly botched the call when he erroneously whistled Gerald Greene for a bogus blocking call with P.J. Carlesimo’s Pirates leading by one.

The Ramblers, who are playing in their first Tournament since 1985, won the national championship back in 1963. They’re looking to cut the nets down Monday night for the second time in school history.

As of Friday afternoon, most betting shops had Michigan (32-7 straight up, 24-12 against the spread) installed as a 5.5-point favorite with a total of 129.5. The Ramblers were +220 on the money line (risk $100 to win $220). They remain longshots to win it all with 12/1 odds at Sportsbook.ag.

John Beilein’s team has +260 odds to win on Monday night, down significantly since I played the Wolverines at 60/1 odds back on Jan. 31. They currently have the second-shortest odds to win it all behind Villanova (-110 at Sportsbook.ag), while Kansas is at +360.

Does my 60/1 ticket have life? Absolutely! But is it time to hedge? Yes, but just a little on Saturday. According to 5Dimes.eu, Villanova is a 4.5-point ‘chalk’ vs. Michigan in a potential finals matchup, with the total at 143.5. The offshore shop has the Wolverines at +175 on the money line versus the Wildcats. 5Dimes has KU as a two-point favorite vs. the blue and maize.

Michigan started the Tournament in inauspicious fashion when it fell behind Montana 10-0 early. The Wolverines would respond, however, and even took the cash in a 61-47 victory as 10-point ‘chalk.’ Charles Matthews was the catalyst with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman finished with 11 points, five rebounds, two assists and a pair of steals.

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Michigan was on the ropes in a Round-of-32 battle with Houston two Saturdays ago. UH’s Devin Davis missed three of four free-throw attempts at crunch time to give the Wolverines life on their final possession trailing by two. Freshman Jordan Poole caught a pass deep on the right wing and launched a 3-ball that’ll haunt Kelvin Sampson for years to come. Poole’s game-winner at the horn lifted Michigan to a 64-63 triumph, although we’ll note that the Cougars took the money as 3.5-point underdogs.

Mo Wagner had 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists vs. Houston, while Abdur-Rahkman had 12 points, three boards and three assists. Matthews and Duncan Robinson chipped in 11 points apiece.

On multiple radio shows last week in Omaha, Clemson and Little Rock, I said, “Michigan survived the first weekend without playing well. If you can do that and still have a pulse, that’s a great sign. I think we’ll see them play great basketball this weekend.”

I don’t know that I would term its performance great in the Elite Eight, but Michigan was undoubtedly firing on all cylinders last Thursday night at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Wolverines punched Texas A&M in the mouth early and often, and the Aggies never had an answer. They led 52-28 at halftime and by as many as 29 points en route to a 99-72 victory that was every bit as dominant as the final score suggested.

Abdur-Rahkman led five double-figure scorers with 24 points, five rebounds, one steal and seven assists compared to only one turnover. Wagner buried 8-of-12 field-goal attempts and all three of his 3-pointers in a 21-point effort. Matthews added 18 points and five boards, while Zavier Simpson finished with 11 points, six steals, five assists and four rebounds. Robinson contributed 10 points and three assists without a turnover.

Michigan captured a 58-54 win over FSU in the West Region final this past Saturday night. With the Wolverines favored by four at most spots, this resulted in a push when Leonard Hamilton inexplicably said ‘uncle’ way too early. I guess Leonard didn’t see Virginia rally from four points down with only one second left to win at Louisville during the regular season. Michigan gathered a defensive rebound with about 12-13 ticks left and was able to dribble out the clock with the Seminoles not even attempting to foul at any point. Hell, Hamilton was walking toward Beilein to shake hands with a good 5-6 seconds remaining.

I cashed a winner with the ‘under’ when the 112 combined points never threatened to get anywhere near the closing total of 143. Matthews scored 17 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked a pair of shots. Wagner finished with 12 points, six boards and two steals, while Simpson contributed nine points, three steals, three rebounds and five assists without a turnover.

Beilein’s squad has won 13 straight games while producing a 10-2-1 ATS record. The Wolverines haven’t tasted defeat since a Feb. 6 loss at Northwestern.

Michigan is ranked eighth in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 63.1 points per game. At the other end, the Wolverines’ weakness is free-throw shooting, as they’re making merely 66.2 percent of their attempts from the stripe to rank No. 321 in the country.

Simpson, the team’s point guard who averages team-bests in assists (3.7 APG) and steals (1.3 SPG), could be a liability at the FT line in end-game situations. The true freshman point guard has made only 45-of-88 FTAs (51.1%).

Wagner is Michigan’s leading scorer (14.3 PPG) and rebounder (6.9 RPG). He’s making 52.4 percent of his FGAs and can also step out to 3-point range, where he’s knocking down 39.6 percent of his launches. Matthews (13.0 PPG, 5.6 RPG) is another shaky FT shooter who’s making only 57.4 percent of his attempts. Abdur-Rahkman (12.8 PPG) has a sensational 130/30 assist-to-turnover ratio and hits 38.8 percent of his treys. Robinson (9.5 PPG) provides instant offense off the bench, draining 39.2 percent of his 3-balls and 90.0 percent of his FTs.

Michigan has compiled a 10-6-1 spread record in 17 games as a single-digit favorite this year.

Meanwhile, Loyola-Chicago (32-5 SU, 23-9 ATS) owns a 7-1-1 spread record with seven outright victories in nine games as an underdog. Porter Moses’s team suffered three of its five losses when leading scorer and starting point guard Clayton Custer was out with an injury.

Loyola-Chicago has won 14 consecutive games while posting an 11-3 spread record. The Ramblers advanced to the Round of 32 thanks to Deonte Ingram’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer that sent Miami back to South Florida in one-and-done fashion. They won a 64-62 decision over the Hurricanes as 1.5-point underdogs.

Clayton Custer scored a team-best 14 points and dished out four assists without committing a turnover. Custer drained 4-of-6 attempts from beyond the arc vs. UM. Ingram, who finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot, hit 3-of-8 from long distance, including the winner at the horn. Aundre Jackson and Cameron Krutwig were also in double figures with 12 and 11 points, respectively.

In the Round of 32, Loyola needed another game-winning bucket in the final seconds. This time around, it was Custer that provided it when he received a friendly roll on mid-range jumper with 3.8 seconds remaining. The go-ahead basket gave the Ramblers a one-point lead that would stick when Tennessee’s Jordan Bone’s top-of-the-key jumper for the win was off the mark.

Loyola beat the third-seeded Volunteers as a 5.5-point underdog, hooking up money-line supporters with a payout in the +215 neighborhood. Jackson scored a game-high 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and six makes on six tries from the charity stripe. All eight players scored and seven had at least six points. Custer finished with 10 points, three assists and two rebounds, knocking down 4-of-5 FGAs and both launches from beyond the arc.

Moses’s squad fell behind Nevada by double digits early in the first half of its South Region semifinal showdown at Philips Arena in Atlanta. Loyola, the 1.5-point underdog, stormed back to take a four-point lead into intermission. The Ramblers would extend the lead to 10 with 9:45 remaining, but the Wolf Pack made a furious comeback behind the trio of Jordan Caroline and the Martin brothers, Caleb and Cody.

With Loyola leading by one, it took control of the ball with 36 ticks left, leaving a six-second differential between the shot and game clocks. Nevada’s Eric Musselman opted not to foul and just play it out with hopes of a defensive stop. That stop would not come, however.

In its third game of the Tournament, Loyola looked for a third different hero and found it in Marques Townes, who caught the ball in the corner with only 3-4 seconds left on the shot clock. Nevertheless, he had the poise to send a defender past him with a beautiful shot fake before taking a dribble to his left and burying a dagger trey to put his team up by four. Loyola would prevail, 69-68, and in the words of the iconic rock band, Led Zeppelin, “Ramble On!”

Kansas State, a Thursday night winner over Kentucky in the ATL, was the next foe for Loyola. But there would be no need for late-game heroics this time around. The Ramblers dealt out a pimpslap to the Wildcats in the form of a 78-62 shellacking. They won handily as one-point underdogs.

Loyola led 36-24 at halftime and would extend the lead to as many as 25 points. Ben Richardson buried 6-of-7 attempts from 3-point range and scored a game-high 23 points. He also had six rebounds and four assists compare to just one turnover. Townes finished with 13 points, four boards and three assists, while Ingram contributed 12 points and eight rebounds. The Ramblers enjoyed a 35-27 rebounding advantage and shot 57.4 percent from the field and 50.0 percent from downtown.

Custer leads Loyola in scoring (13.2 PPG), assists (4.2 APG) and steals (1.5 SPG). The two-year starter who sat out the 2015-16 campaign after transferring from Iowa St. has made 52.7 percent of his FGAs, 45.5 percent of his launches from downtown and 75.7 percent of his FTs.

You want balance offensively? Loyola has it in bunches, as all five starters are averaging in double figures, while Richardson contributes 7.0 PPG coming off the bench. Ingram averages 11.3 points and 6.3 RPG. Townes (11.2 PPG) is making 52.2 percent of his FGAs, while Jackson (11.0 PPG) is knocking down 58.0 percent of his shots from the field. Krutwig (10.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG) paces the Ramblers in FG percentage (59.7%) and blocked shots (0.7 BPG).

Loyola is ranked fifth in the nation in scoring defense, limiting opponents to merely 62.4 PPG. As for their offense, the Ramblers are ranked third in the country in FG percentage (50.9%) and 15th in 3-point accuracy (40.0%). Seven players are making 3’s at a 35.4 percent clip or better, with five nailing at least 39.6 percent of their triples.

The ‘under’ had cashed in eight straight Loyola games before the 140 combined points in its win over Kansas St. went ‘over’ the 126-point tally. The Ramblers have seen the ‘under’ go 20-13 overall.

The ‘under’ is 3-1 for Michigan during the Tournament, 19-16-2 overall. If the total remains in the 120s, it will be the first such tally for the Wolverines since they played at Wisconsin on Feb. 11. That result was an easy ‘over’ with Beilein’s team cruising to an 83-72 win for 155 combined points (30 points above the closing total of 125). The ‘under’ has cashed at a 3-1 clip in Michigan’s four games that had totals in the 120s.

Tip-off at the Alamodome is scheduled for 6:09 p.m. Eastern on TBS.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

-- Michigan is seeking its second national-title game appearance since 2013 when it dropped a nail-biter to Louisville.

-- Michigan owns a 6-1 record in seven all-time appearances in the national semifinals.

-- These schools have met three times. Michigan has won two of those three games, including an 84-80 win in the 1964 NCAA Tournament.

-- Matthews was named the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player last Saturday night.

-- Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman joined Matthews on the all-region team, but Wagner missed all seven of his 3-point attempts vs. FSU.

-- Loyola-Chicago is undefeated in nine games played on neutral courts this season.

-- The Ramblers are the fourth No. 11 seed to make the Final Four, joining the 1986 LSU Tigers (led by Ricky Blanton and the late Don Redden), the 2006 George Mason Patriots (which saw its dream run ended by my Gators!) and the 2011 VCU Rams who lost to Butler in the national semifinals. LSU also lost at the Final Four, so Loyola is obviously trying to become the first No. 11 seed to make the finals.

-- If all four teams bring their “A-Games” to San Antonio, I think Villanova cuts the nets down. But that’s the beauty of the Tournament – anything can happen in a one-game scenario. Here’s to hoping the Wolverines will be celebrating Monday night and deliver Beilein his first national championship!

Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.

  
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