If the Michigan Wolverines had emerged from their locker room an hour or two after a 14th straight victory on Saturday night, and if they had trained their eyes on the Alamodome floor while Villanova was shredding Kansas, they’d have been forgiven if those eyes had glazed over, hypnotized by brilliance. Forgiven if a few jaws had dropped. If a few wows and four-letter words had been subconsciously uttered.
They’d have seen excellence personified. They’d have seen a team widely regarded as an overwhelming national championship favorite, and even compared to the Warriors, show just why that was the case. They’d have realized it will be their turn to try to contain that team in 48 hours. And maybe, just maybe, they would have toyed with anxiety as they recognized the size of their task.
But maybe, just maybe, they also would have recognized something else: That they, more so than any other team Villanova has faced this year, are equipped to stop the unstoppable force. That the task, while sizable, might just be one which their stifling defense will be up for.
Villanova is a 7-point favorite over Michigan in Monday’s national championship game (9:20 p.m. ET, TBS), and with good reason. But there is also reason to believe the Wolverines match up much better with the Wildcats than the Jayhawks did. And those reasons reside on the defensive end of the floor. So that’s where we’ll begin our title game preview.
WHEN VILLANOVA HAS THE BALL: Can Michigan cope with Nova’s spread attack?
Kansas was helpless. Hopeless. At the mercy of college basketball’s best offense – statistically the second-best of the past 17 years – it came apart, stretched thin then ripped up by an unrivaled combination of shooting, passing, movement, drives and athletic ability.
Watch ALL 13 of Villanova's record-tying 13 three's in a #FinalFour game…
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 1, 2018
But it was also ripped apart because it didn’t have the personnel to contain that combination. It had a 7-foot center, Udoka Azubuike, who couldn’t hang on the perimeter; who couldn’t chase Omari Spellman or Eric Paschall around the court, and couldn’t make up for the difference on the other end.
The frontcourt mismatch wasn’t the only reason Villanova sped past the Jayhawks. But it was big one. Spellman and Paschall are special, because they’re small-ball bigs who play large when they need to. Spellman shoots 44 percent on one end, but is a bonafide rebounder and shot-blocker on the other.
Their skill sets, therefore, necessitate a counterpart who can equal them. Michigan just might have that.
Moe Wagner might not beat Spellman in a 40-yard dash or an agility drill, but he’s much more mobile than, for example, Azubuike. He won’t be consistently exposed. Michigan, as a team, won’t be either. And on paper, it’s as capable as anyone of neutralizing Villanova’s strengths.
There will be a territorial battle on Monday night. Villanova takes 47.5 percent of its field goals from behind the arc. Michigan opponents, on the other hand, take less than 30 percent of shots from 3-point range. The Wolverines do as good a job as anyone of running shooters off the line and forcing them inside it.
However, Michigan doesn’t let opponents get to the rim either. It funnels them toward mid-range jumpers, which account for 43.3 percent of field goal attempts against the Wolverines – per hoop-math.com, the highest rate in the nation. Villanova, conversely, will resist. Only 20.4 percent of its shots this season have been mid-range 2s.
Something will have to give. Michigan will try to jam cutters and keep drivers – specifically Jalen Brunson – out of the paint without helping off shooters. It will likely follow the Texas Tech blueprint from the Elite Eight, and it’s one of only a few teams with the personnel and disciplined habits to do so.
But Villanova might just have too much. As noted prior to Saturday’s game, the Wildcats have now shot at least 33 percent from beyond the arc in 30 games this season. In 29 of them, they’ve scored 1.17 points per possession or more. Michigan has only bettered that number nine times against Division I opposition. That’s how steep the mountain could be.
WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL: The 3s must fall
It’s generally an analytical cop-out to note the importance of the 3-ball. But it’s tough to look past Michigan’s recent long-range struggles. Because if they continue, the Wolverines don’t seem to stand much of a chance on Monday.
Typically a decent outside-shooting club, John Beilein’s crew has shot 31, 27, 18 and 25 percent from 3 in four of its five tourney games. The exception was the 14-for-24 Sweet 16 explosion against Texas A&M. A repeat of that would send maize and blue confetti flying. But a repeat is unlikely.
Similarly unlikely, though, is the scenario where the Wolverines win an offensive duel without hitting from beyond the arc. In adjusted efficiency terms, the difference between their offense and Villanova’s is the same as the one between their offense and 216th-ranked Southeastern Louisiana. They simply don’t have the firepower to score with Nova.
What they do have is Wagner, and a replica, or at least a near-replica, of Saturday’s “physically dominant” 27-point, 15-board performance seems like a must. If the German junior has his way with Spellman down low, help will come harder and more frequently. If it does, the likelihood of a lights-out shooting night from guys like Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman will rise.
If it doesn’t, Michigan will have to find ways to move Villanova’s defense. The Wolverines got stagnant against Loyola when their dribble-drives stalled and their cuts were anticipated. Beilein must find a way to get his offense into a rhythm. He can’t afford a repeat of Saturday’s first half.
– – – – – – –