SAN ANTONIO -- On Saturday afternoon, along the San Antonio River Walk, a young man descended an escalator wearing a Cinderella ball gown, topped with a maroon and gold Loyola-Chicago scarf around his neck.
It had been that kind of NCAA tournament -- a little bit wild, a lot unexpected. Then afternoon turned to evening, and the Final Four fell back toward normalcy, in a basketball purists' sense, anyway. UMBC, then Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean, had allowed us to revel in the underdogs, in the idea that anybody could truly beat anybody no matter the resource divide.
This is what makes college basketball more egalitarian than its football counterpart: Loyola-Chicago can live in this world and be loved in this world. In the end, though, it has a hard time winning it all in this world.
So the two favorites won their Final Four games, and now Michigan and Villanova will play in the championship game, two recognizable basketball brands with tradition and history and three national titles between them. To up the intrigue just a smidge, Michigan enters as the hottest team in the nation, Villanova as the best team in the nation. Michigan is a team that has won with defense and toughness; Villanova is a team that has won with an offensive efficiency that is masterful and beautiful all at once.
The contrasts do not end there. If Villanova was a favorite to make it back to the Final Four when this season began, Michigan was not. Once upon a time, Michigan was an underdog, too, at least in the literal sense. Purdue and Michigan State grabbed all the headlines in the Big Ten, while the Wolverines were picked to finish fifth in the conference's preseason poll.
But those pollsters had no idea what began to blossom in the Michigan locker room back in the summer. Every single day, before they ended their workouts in the weight room, players gathered and said, "National champions on three! One, two, three: national champs!" They did this every single day. Most days, Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews led the chant.
"If you say it every day, you speak it into existence and it gets engraved in your head," Jaaron Simmons said.
Duncan Robinson explained it this way:
"We said, 'Big Ten champs' last year. This offseason, we shifted to national champs. It's been a goal of ours, and collectively, we've been striving toward that. A national championship is the ultimate goal, when you think about it. We have guys that have been able to win conference championships before, and this program's been able to do it before, but a national championship is a separator."
It has been a while since that happened.
"1989," Robinson continued. "We're playing for another opportunity. It's pretty special."
For 33 minutes against Loyola-Chicago, though, it appeared the underdog would have its way. Then Moritz Wagner took over, and Loyola-Chicago ended up like the other three No. 11 seeds before it that had made the Final Four: with an incredible tournament run that fell just short. Walking to the locker room after the game, coach Porter Moser had his arm around a red-eyed Ben Richardson, while Clayton Custer clapped his hands in frustration and shouted about missed opportunities in the game.
Michigan kept calm in its locker room. The Wolverines had nothing to celebrate -- at least not yet.
The vibe was the same in the Villanova locker room after a dominant 95-79 win over Kansas in which it set a Final Four record for 3-pointers made in a game with 18. That shouldn't have come as a surprise to anybody who followed the Wildcats all season. They have consistently and efficiently hit 3-pointers since the season began and have done it with virtually all of their starters.
Villanova players coolly answered questions about their shooting touch, repeating similar mantras: Their defense helped open up the 3, and they are confident in anybody who gets the ball in their hands and scores. If it's Jalen Brunson one night, it's Mikal Bridges another. On Saturday night, it was Omari Spellman, who had 15 points and 13 rebounds to lead the way.
"We just have great kids that value being a part of something bigger than themselves," Villanova assistant Ashley Howard said. "You're talking about a group of guys that prioritize winning over individual accolades. So they'll do whatever it takes to win, and they love playing with each other."
Howard said the coaching staff had an idea about this team's potential, especially if it could get Spellman developed in the right way. But unlike Michigan, Wildcats players never ever spoke about the idea they could play for a national championship this season.
They didn't even talk conference championship, either.
"I think if you talk about it so much, it will never have a chance to get here," Villanova guard Phil Booth said. "Talking about -- 'We've got to make the national championship' -- I feel it takes away from the team. We focus on us getting better."
Bridges was asked to explain why Villanova shot so well against Kansas. "We were locked in," he offered. But were they locked in even more because they knew what was at stake?
"No," he said. "We lock in before every game."
Their singular focus has been a driving force, but you could say the same about Michigan. These are two teams without big talkers who often stick to clichés to make their point. But what they do have are head coaches at the top of their game, able to harness the best out of their players -- even if it means playing a different style to best suit their personnel.
"We came here to win Monday, not just Saturday," Robinson said.
Villanova enters the game as the prohibitive favorite, but Michigan hasn't lost a game since Feb. 6. After all the upsets, surprises and astonishing endings, it feels as if this is the way the season was meant to end.