Complete National Championship Game Preview
Michigan and Villanova will play for the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball national championship game Monday night. The nation will see two recognizable basketball brands with great tradition, three national titles between them, and two of the best coaches in the business in John Beilein and Jay Wright. To amplify the intrigue, Michigan enters Monday night as arguably the hottest team in the nation, while Villanova has been regarded all year long as possibly the best team in the country.
The Wolverines have not lost since Feb. 6, and they have dominated the field with stifling defense and toughness since that date. Villanova, on the contrary, has electrified the college basketball landscape all season long with some of the most masterful and efficient offense the sport has seen in years.
The discrepancies do not end there though. Villanova was a preseason favorite to make it back to the Final Four when this season began, but Michigan was not. When the season began. Purdue and Michigan State garnered all the headlines in the Big Ten, while the Wolverines were picked to finish just fifth in the conference's preseason poll. Yet the Wolverines cruised to a Big Ten Tournament title, knocking off both the Spartans and the Boilermakers along the way, and are the last Big Ten team standing in the big dance. Michigan may be a 6.5 underdog Monday night, but Beilein’s squad has grown very familiar with the underdog label throughout the season, but it has not slowed them down.
How They Got Here
Michigan’s run through the NCAA Tournament has been somewhat of an anomaly to the typical Michigan teams that Beilein has had in recent years. Beilein is well-regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the sport, but Michigan this year has bought into a new-look no-open looks philosophy on the other end of the court.
The Wolverines rank No. 3 in the country in defensive efficiency and have held its opponents in the NCAA Tournament to 40 percent shooting on their two-point field goal attempts. They have also done so without any elite shot-blocker on the roster. Michigan trailed Loyola-Chicago 41-31 with 14 minutes left in its Final Four matchup this past Saturday. From that point on the Wolverines finished the game on a 38-16 run. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Michigan contested 24 of Loyola’s 27 field goal attempts in the second half, and the Ramblers did attempt an “open” shot until 4:43 left in the game.
Simultaneously, Michigan has been equally as stingy defending the three-point line. On Saturday Michigan held Loyola to season-lows in both three-point makes and attempts. The Wolverines are holding their opponents to just 24 percent on their threes and have given up only 18 total makes in its five games through the tournament – the same number of threes that Villanova drained in one game against Kansas in its semifinal matchup.
The Wolverines will have its toughest defensive test of the season against the offensive juggernaut that is Villanova. The Wildcats have set 12 program records this season and set a new single-season NCAA record for three-pointers made in a season and three-pointers made in a single NCAA Tournament.
Under Wright, Villanova has been known for much smaller lineups, but redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman has added a new dimension to the offense this season. At 6-9, Spellman is shooting 44 percent from three-point range this season giving Villanova legitimately five players who can stretch the floor at all times.
Villanova plays with consistent tempo no matter what the score is and rarely gets out of sync. They never deviate from their offensive game plan, are unselfish at all times and will make the extra passes to find better shots. As a result, frequent barrages from the outside can occur at any given moment, and the Wildcats then become nearly impossible to stop.
Villanova’s offensive efficiency has been so incredible throughout the tournament, that its drastically improved defense has been completely forgotten. In the middle of February, the Wildcats went through a stretch where they lost three of six games and allowed at least one point per possession to opponents in eight of 10 games. However, allowing an ultra-talented Kansas offense to score 79 points in Saturday’s semifinal was Villanova’s worst defensive performance since Feb. 17.
Players to Watch
AP National Player of the Year, Jalen Brunson, is the catalyst for Villanova’s highest-scoring offense in the nation. He averages 19.2 points per game and is shooting 41 percent from three-point range. At 6-2, 190 pounds Brunson is too strong for most opposing point guards to contain and too fast for bigger players to contain in isolation situations. Brunson is also an excellent playmaker off the dribble and has five teammates who have made at least 39 percent of their threes this season, including Spellman, who is also a solid rim protector with 1.5 blocks per contest.
Phil Booth is a very solid complementary backcourt partner to Brunson with 19 assists to just seven turnovers in the tournament thus far. Meanwhile, freshman guard Collin Gillespie brings more shooting off the bench. Both Booth and Gillespie shoot 39 percent from distance. Also keep an eye on Donte DiVincenzo, the Big East Sixth-Man of the Year. Not only does he shoot 39 percent from three, but he is also Villanova’s second-leading assist man and can bring a little bit of everything to the floor.
6-7 Eric Paschall will line up alongside Spellman in the Villanova frontcourt. Of all of the Wildcat players that see significant time, Paschall is the worst perimeter shooter at 35 percent, which is still very respectable, but his value particularly stems from his passing ability. With Paschall on the floor, the Wildcats have made 43 percent of its threes in the NCAA Tournament. He also had maybe his best game of the year against Kansas with a 24-point explosion on 10 of 11 shooting, including four of five from three.
Villanova’s best NBA prospect is Mikal Bridges, who averages 18 points per game and shoots a lethal 44 percent from three. Bridges will be a top-ten draft pick this summer. With his length, the 6-7 wing can play inside and out equally as effectively. Plus, he is also a lockdown defender and can guard multiple positions. He will be the best athlete on the floor Monday night.
For Michigan, Moritz Wagner will be a matchup problem for Villanova with his ability to stretch the floor (40 percent from three) at 6-11. Paschall and Spellman are both big bodies who will challenge Wagner around the rim, but he will still likely demand extra defenders, which could open the floor for his teammates. In Big East play, Villanova allowed opposing teams to grab 29.2 percent of their missed shots, which ranked ninth in the league. Wagner can exploit that weakness, one of the few areas where the Wildcats have struggled this season.
Kentucky transfer, Charles Matthews, has also shined for the Wolverines this postseason. In the NCAA tournament, Michigan has held opponents to 0.86 points per possession with Matthews on the floor and 0.95 PPP with him on the bench, per hooplens.com. For comparison, Virginia -- the best defensive team in the analytics era -- held opponents to 0.89 PPP this season. Matthews will probably be put on either Brunson or Bridges for most of the game, but he's also big enough to shadow Spellman or Paschall with his 6-6 frame.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the Big Ten this year with a 6.3 percent turnover rate. He will bring valuable senior leadership to the floor against the most explosive offense in the country. The Wolverines have averaged just nine turnovers per game in their past four. They will have to limit the number of turnovers to have a chance at upsetting Villanova, which is why Abdur-Rahkman will be key.
Also keep an eye on Duncan Robinson, who made 39 percent of his threes this season, coming off the bench. Villanova has topped 80 points in four of its five games in the tournament, so Michigan will need Robinson to make a few shots from the perimeter to help score with the Wildcats.
The biggest x-factor for Michigan, however, is sophomore guard Zavier Simpson. The Wolverines stalled on offense in the first half against Loyola-Chicago in large part because Simpson (0-for-6, four turnovers) struggled. In the NCAA tournament, Michigan has connected on only 31 percent of its 3-pointers with Simpson on the floor. When the Wolverines beat Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, Simpson finished with 11 points (5-for-8), five assists and six steals on their way to scoring 99 points. Michigan will need that version of Simpson Monday night.
Villanova has dominated every opponent it has played in the NCAA Tournament with its closest margin of victory being 12 points twice to West Virginia and Texas Tech. It has been a bit more up and down for Michigan, which needed a miracle buzzer-beater from Jordan Poole beat Houston 64-63 in the second round.
Despite pouring 99 points in against Texas A&M, the Wolverines hit another stump in a narrow 58-54 escape of No. 9 Florida State in the Elite 8, while shooting just 38.8 percent from the floor and 18.2 percent from deep. Then in the Final Four against Loyola-Chicago, Wagner bailed Michigan out with his 24 points and 15 boards, making him one of two players on the team to hit double-digit scoring. Michigan went just 7-of-28 from three in that game and missed six shots from the free-throw line.
Villanova, on the other hand, just looks unstoppable. Even they made 18 threes against Kansas in the Final Four, the Wildcats had shot 41 percent or better from deep in three tournament games before. The exception was the win against Texas Tech, where they made just four of 24 from deep. Nevertheless, five players still scored in double-digits, while the Wildcats also posted 51-33 rebounding margin and got to the free-throw line 35 times.
Michigan’s defense has been phenomenal, but there is a reason Villanova is much more heavily favored than a team typically is in a national title game. Villanova will not shoot the ball nearly as well from the outside Monday night as it did against Kansas in the Final Four, but the Wildcats can score in so many ways and are nearly impossible to guard for a full 40 minutes. Wagner will give Villanova some trouble, but the Wildcats will pull away late and cut down the nets in San Antonio for their second national title in the last three years.
Villanova 78, Michigan 71
Will Desautelle is a sophomore majoring in Broadcast Journalism and Political Science. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.