By Kyle Beery
Have you caught your breath yet?
The last three weeks have brought us as exciting an NCAA Tournament we have ever seen. The storylines have been plentiful, and the action has been phenomenal.
Keep your eyes peeled for a few posts in the next few days fully recapping the tournament. But right now, we’ve got one final game to watch: No. 3 seed Michigan vs. No. 1 seed Villanova.
What’s at stake?
Michigan: The Wolverines have reached their second title game since 2013 and are going for their first championship since 1989.
John Beilein is in search of his first national championship.
Villanova: The Wildcats are going for their second championship in two years.
Jay Wright can become the first coach to win two titles in a three-year span since Billy Donovan did it with the Florida Gators in 2006-07.
How they got here
The Wolverines have reached the title game without once playing a higher seeded team. And they almost didn’t get here. After beating No. 14 seed Montana in the first round, Michigan’s Jordan Poole threw up a miracle three-pointer to beat No. 6 seed Houston at the buzzer to reach the Sweet 16.
After squeaking by the Cougars, the Wolverines did a complete 180 by beating Texas A&M 99-72, via 14 three-pointers. Michigan advanced to the Final Four held on for a 58-54 win over Florida State in the Elite 8.
Saturday night Moritz Wagner’s 24 points and 15 rebounds helped the Wolverines put an end to the Cinderella story of No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean. Michigan struggled greatly for the first 30 minutes of the game, before finally taking over by going away from the three-point line and exploiting the Ramblers’ weaknesses inside.
The Wildcats have coasted to the title game by beating all of its opponents by at least 12 points. Wins over No. 16 seed Radford, No. 9 seed Alabama, No. 5 West Virginia and No. 3 Texas Tech got Villanova to the Final Four.
Just like in the Wildcats’ last Final Four appearance, they faced a Big 12 team in the semifinal, and much like that year, they absolutely blew them out of the water. They beat Oklahoma by 44 in 2016 and smoked Kansas Saturday 95-79.
Villanova shot the lights out — literally — on Saturday, going 18-for-40 from three-point range, easily breaking the record for most 3s in a Final Four game. They tied the record with 13 in the first half.
Keys to victory
This may seem like an obvious one, especially after watching the Wildcats’ offensive explosion on Saturday, but that is the only place to start. Michigan will need to find a way to at least slow down the likes of Eric Paschall, freshman Omari Spellman and Mikal Bridges. The Wolverines are at an obvious disadvantage size-wise. The 6-foot-11 Wagner and 7-foot-1 Jon Teske (though he may not play many minutes) provide some height, but don’t necessarily match up well with Paschall and Spellman, both 6-foot-9.
Beyond those two matchups, Villanova’s size on the wings will give Michigan’s defense fits. Mikal Bridges is a 6-foot-6 menace on the wing, and all three of those players can stretch the floor and knock it down from deep.
While the Wildcats will be quicker and more physical, but John Beilein still has his best defense he’s ever had at Michigan. They’re ranked third in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (90.4 points allowed per 100 possessions). This team is capable of holding the Wildcats (No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency) in check, but if they let them get hot — especially early — they could be in trouble.
2. Mo Wagner
Wagner will win the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player if the Wolverines pull off the upset. He has been the most pivotal player in Michigan’s run, and his play in the post against Paschall and Spellman will determine the outcome of this game.
3. The bench
Either Duncan Robinson, Jordan Poole or Jaaron Simmons will really need to show up for the Wolverines to have a chance. Think of Spike Albrecht in 2013. His sharpshooting in the national title game against Louisville kept the team afloat, though it wasn’t quite enough.
1. Three-point shooting
Again, this seems obvious. But I’ll take a different approach than you might expect. Clearly, as we saw Saturday, the Wildcats can light it up from deep. But they can’t let that go to their heads. They need to make it a point not to rely on the three-ball. If they’re not falling early, Jay Wright needs to show why he’s one of the best coaches in the country and get Bridges and AP National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson driving to the bucket. If they can get that going, things will open up on the outside later in the game to try and go back to the three.
2. Omari Spellman
Michigan doesn’t have anyone that can shut him down, so they’ll have to settle for trying to slow him down. Against the Wildcats’ most similar opponent to Michigan this tournament — Texas Tech (No. 4 in AdjDE) — he went an efficient 4-for-7 from the field with two three pointers. If he can get going early, one of two things will happen: 1) he won’t stop, and he’ll completely take the game over, or 2) Michigan will focus so heavily on him, which will open things up for everyone else.
The Wildcats have a pretty good defense themselves (No. 14 AdjDE). They turn teams over a ton, but they do so on 18.3 percent of their possessions — not bad. Michigan hasn’t had more than 15 turnovers in a single game in more than two seasons, but they did have 11 in each of their last two games against Loyola and Florida State, two far inferior defensive teams compared to Villanova. If the Wildcats can get the number of turnovers into that range, they should be able to get out and run, which could spell bad news for Michigan.
Listen. I grew up a Michigan fan. The school will always have a spot in my heart (literally). But I just don’t see them winning Monday night. The Wolverines haven’t played a team remotely as good as Villanova in about a month. They’ve had a very good run in this tournament, but it’s been against some pretty average teams.
They’ll be in for a wakeup call Monday. Villanova has been one of — if not the best — team in college basketball all season. As a Butler fan, I’ve watched a lot of Big East games this year, thus I’ve seen a lot of the Wildcats. They’re faster, more physical, better shooters, and just a better team overall.
I’d like to think Michigan can hold this game to one or two possessions into the final minutes, but I don’t know if that will happen. I’ve got Michigan hanging around until the last five minutes or so of the game.
Villanova 79, Michigan 67.