VILLANOVA vs. MICHIGAN
For the second time in three years, coach Jay Wright has guided the Villanova Wildcats into the championship game. The Wildcats beat North Carolina two years ago on a last second shot by Kris Jenkins. The 2018 challenge against Michigan will be much different. Whereas the Tar Heels (who won the championship last year) won with size and opportunistic scoring, Michigan plays staunch team defense and does not allow easy baskets. Michigan has won 14 games in a row and was able to come back from a 10-point deficit in the Final Four against Cinderella Loyola-Chicago. Underestimate the Wolverines and their seeming lack of offensive firepower at your own risk. Coach John Beilein’s team is one of the best defensive squads to make the championship game since Butler made its run under coach Brad Stevens.
No. 1 Villanova Wildcats
Offense. That's a rather broad statement, but it's a great summary of what the Wildcats do well. They lead the nation in scoring at 86.8 points per game, 3rd in 2-point field goal percentage (59.0 percent), 11th in 3-point percentage (40.1 percent), and 10th in free throw percentage (77.9 percent). This, in part, has led to a top ranking in offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, per KenPom. They have six players averaging in double figures, all of whom shoot the 3-ball at at least 35.7 percent, making it incredibly difficult to guard all five players inside and out.
After watching Saturday night's dominance, it's fair to ask if the Wildcats have a weakness. We've touched on their offensive prowess, but Villanova is also a capable defensive team. In their run to Monday night, they've held three opponents to 61 points or less, and three teams to sub-39 percent shooting. You can argue that they are undersized, but we saw how they can spread teams out and render big men ineffective against Kansas. I worry that Villanova becomes too reliant on the 3-point shot, and cold shooting has been the common thread in their four losses, with only 27.6 percent falling from behind the arc.
As if we hadn't built Villanova's offensive machine and capable defense into enough of an unbeatable force, how about we add experience into the mix? Of their six-man core rotation, three (Jalen Brunson, Mikael Bridges and Phil Booth) played more than 20 minutes nightly on Villanova's championship team two seasons ago. There won't be any panic in this team if they fall behind or if their shots aren't falling; by in large they'll just find another way.
Villanova Will Win If:
They remain committed to a balanced offense. While Villanova clearly didn't have any adverse effects shooting in a larger area, they still took 40 3-pointers Saturday against Kansas. No matter how many went through the hoop, that's a lot of hoisting. Because those shots went in, it forced Kansas' defense to extend, which in turn led to Villanova hitting a ridiculous 18-of-25 from inside the arc with most shots coming from very close range. Those easy looks may not be there as frequently against Michigan if the 'Cats aren't as hot from the perimeter. While the outside shot is what Villanova does best, I think it will be in their best interest to look a little more inside early and then force the Wolverines' defense to extend.
As great as Villanova looked Saturday, they've been installed as only a 6.5-point favorite, so clearly there's a chance at an upset. That comes from Michigan's defensive ability, where they rank 3rd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. They've allowed more than 63 points only once in their run to the championship game, and I believe they will find a way to slow tempo and opportunities enough that Villanova won't be sprinting out to 80-plus points and a blowout win. Mortiz Wagner is definitely a matchup problem for the 'Cats, but at the end of the day, Villanova looks like a team that won't be denied. Continued poor shooting from Michigan's Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will leave the Wolverines with too few scoring options to keep up. Villanova hits a few shots after the final media timeout to stretch this game out to comfortable win, 75-68.
No. 3 Michigan Wolverines
The key to the Wolverines’ postseason run has been their incredible defense. They stifle transition opportunities and do not allow teams to take very many uncontested shots in the half court. Mo Wagner provides size and space eating, but the team does not have a weak link in its defensive sets. Beilein has them very well prepared for opponents’ plays, and the team plays with excellent defensive awareness. Unlike a team like West Virginia, there is no gimmick to Michigan’s defense. It is a beautiful thing to watch as five players (even when Michigan goes to the bench) plays with a similar mind and prevent opponents from getting open looks.
You have to give credit to the Rambler defense, which was just one of many to stifle the Wolverines offense for a half. Offensive droughts are a big issue for Michigan. If Mo Wagner had not been around to put back offensive boards against Loyola, the Wolverines may have been limited to 15 points in the first half on Saturday. While Villanova seems like an offensive-minded squad, the Wildcats’ ability to switch on defense is going to cause problems. The offense can take some pressure off the defense by converting shots and setting up the half court defense.
There is something to be said for the team that no one believes in. Michigan has been the plucky underdog for quite a bit of the season. They were considered the fourth best team in the Big Ten (behind Michigan State, Purdue, and Ohio State), but won the Big Ten tournament (beating both the Spartans and Boilermakers) before their run in the Big Dance. People will expect Villanova to light up the scoreboard in college basketball’s biggest stage, but that is not the way that Michigan is going to play.
Michigan will win IF:
Whatever they bottled in the win over Texas A&M comes back. The Wolverines showed they could shoot the lights out in the rout over the Aggies. It would be very helpful if the Wolverines can get out to a hot start on offense, but they are going to need a big offensive run at some point in the game against the relentless shooting of the Wildcats. It would also be nice if Villanova comes back to earth (or maybe even below the ground) from the perimeter in the championship game.
It is somewhat too easy to look past Michigan and say they simply do not have enough offense to keep up with Villanova. The last 14 Wolverine opponents might say the same things, and they each left their games with a loss. However, the closest team that Michigan has played to Villanova in terms of offensive fire power is Purdue, and the Boilermakers won both regular season meetings. The last team to beat the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament (Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 last year) was from the Big Ten, so maybe some Midwestern magic will be at play in San Antonio. That seems unlikely, so the Wildcats are likely to continue their run of double-digit wins.