SAN ANTONIO — What college basketball fans saw Saturday evening from Villanova was the sort of performance that can lead one to presume there is little reason in even bothering to contest the scheduled Monday night championship game between the Wildcats and Michigan Wolverines.
However, it’s not over until it starts, at least.
UM fell behind 10-0 to 14th-seeded Montana, needed a miracle shot to defeat Houston, shot 39 percent against Florida State and trailed Loyola by double-digits in the second half of their Final Four semifinal — just before Villanova stepped up to the same stage and obliterated Midwest Region No. 1 seed Kansas. How could the Wolverines possibly stand up against such an onslaught?
This is the tricky thing about sports, though. Steve Kornacki of Michigan’s communications department pointed out how the Wolverines had battled Oregon in the Sweet 16 last season until the final seconds, essentially losing because of an offensive rebound of a missed free throw snatched by Ducks big man Jordan Bell. Kansas then walked onto the same floor in the second game of the doubleheader and destroyed Big Ten champion Purdue, 98-66.
How could Oregon possibly compete with that Kansas team? As they say in boxing, styles make fights. KU had no one to match up with Bell, and the Ducks won by 14.
It would seem Michigan is better situated to contend with the remarkable productivity of the nation’s No. 1 offense. That’s partly because UM wields the No. 3 defense, but also because instead of trying to guard sweet-shooting Wildcats big man Omari Spellman with 7-0, 280-pound Udoka Azubuike, as Kansas did, the Wolverines’ big guy is 6-11 Moe Wagner. He is not unfamiliar with the idea of a mobile 6-11 shooter. He sees one in the mirror every morning.
How to watch the NCAA championship live:
Game time, TV channel & live-streaming info
NCAA championship matchup:
Villanova vs. Michigan
No. 1 Villanova
|Coach: Jay Wright, 3 Final Fours, 1 NCAA championship|
|Overall record: 35-4|
|Scoring leader: Jalen Brunson, 19.2, ppg|
|Rebounding leader: Omari Spellman, 7.9 rpg|
|Assists leader: Jalen Brunson, 4.4 apg|
|Famous non-athlete alum: Actor Jon Polito|
No. 3 Michigan
|Coach: John Beilein, 2 Final Fours|
|Overall record: 33-7|
|Scoring leader: Moe Wagner, 14.6 ppg|
|Rebounding leader: Moe Wagner, 7.1 rpg|
|Assists leader: Zavier Simpson, 3.7 apg|
|Famous non-athlete alum: Actor David Allen Grier|
NCAA championship odds, lines
No. 1 Villanova (-330) opened as a 7-point favorite, a relatively huge point spread for an NCAA championship game, against No. 3 seed Michigan (+270). The total points for the title game is set at 145.5. Check the updated odds, lines and point spreads at VegasInsider.com.
Best individual matchup
Villanova freshman Omari Spellman vs. Michigan sophomore Moe Wagner. They are part of the new wave of big men, capable of shooting from distance, putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim if given room and banging underneath for rebounds and post baskets.
The first key in their matchup is avoidance of foul trouble. Spellman got two quick fouls in the round of 32 against Alabama and sat for most of the first half. That could be afford because Donte DiVincenzo came off the bench to score 18 points before the break. But no team wants to take that chance. Wagner fouled out of a Big Ten Tournament game against Iowa. The Wolverines were fortunate to win without him in overtime.
The second is basically how often they won’t be matched. Which team can be more effective at getting smaller defenders switched onto the big guy and then attacking that mismatch?
The third is whether either player gets the room necessary to build confidence. Spellman has been sensational in the tournament; Wagner has had sensational games, and others where he was ineffective. It won’t be easy for Michigan to gain an edge here, but it probably must happen for UM to win.
Critical coaching decision
If Michigan can get Jalen Brunson involved in ball screen situations with Moe Wagner setting the pick, how will Villanova coach Jay Wright choose to defend the play? The obvious choice is to have Brunson go under the screen, which would slow the ability of Wagner to roll to the basket. It would leave plenty of room for an open 3-point shot, but figuring that this shot would be launched by the Wolverines’ Zavier Simpson, a .293 long-distance shooter, this is not daunting.
If Simpson does not hit that shot when it’s there, or if he declines to take it for lack of confidence, it seems possible Michigan again would try senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman at point, and going under the screen against him could be dangerous. Abdur-Rahkman made 71 3-pointers this season, although none came in Saturday’s Loyola game.
Ultimately, it seems likely Michigan will try to get Brunson mismatched against Wagner in the post – for the high-percentage chance it would create, and because it might lead Brunson to spend one or two of his five allotted personals.
Most eye-popping stat: .317
Michigan’s shot .317 from 3-point range in five NCAA Tournament games. The Wolverines hit .369 from long distance during the regular season. More than 1/3 of their regular-season baskets were 3-pointers; they rank among the top 60 teams in number of 3-pointers taken compared to total field goal attempts. But they’ve found the range only once in this tournament, going 14-of-24 in a Sweet 16 romp over Texas A&M. They’re averaging 22.8 points on 3-pointers in the tournament. That’s down nearly 5 points per game. Abdur-Rahkman is 7-of-28. Simpson is 2-of-11.
The Wildcats play very good defense, but they do not strangle an offense like Loyola does. Michigan should be able to run its offense more often than in the semis, and it should get more of the shots it wants. It can’t have the two guards and forward Duncan Robinson shooting a combined 2-of-14 on 3-pointers, which was what happened in the Loyola game. If the Wolverines generate open shots and don’t make them, they’ll have no chance.
Get to know ...
Michigan sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. Simpson faces the difficult job of contending with Sporting News Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, who has swept every such honor presented to date.
Simpson’s father Quincey was his personal coach growing up – like Brunson was taught by his father, Rick – and became his high school coach at Lima (Ohio) Senior High in Zavier’s junior season. He was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball in 2016. Simpson entered this season expecting to take over the point guard position left open when Derrick Walton completed his career last March, but Zavier struggled terribly in the first month, scoring 3 or fewer points in eight of the first nine games.
When he finally got it together, he helped Michigan win a vital home non-conference game against UCLA, and eventually he emerged as the Big Ten’s best on-ball defender and the key to the Michigan defense as it rose to No. 3 in the nation in efficiency. It was a surprise when he was left off the Big Ten’s all-defensive team.
“This is definitely a matchup I’m looking forward to; who wouldn’t?” Simpson said Sunday. “As a point guard, and one who wants to be elite at the next level, who wouldn’t look forward to a matchup like Brunson? He’s national player of the year. In order to be the best, you have to compete with the best.”
NCAA championship pick: Villanova
At the start of the tournament, it was clear this was the most complete team in college basketball: an offensive force that defended well enough to be a factor at that end. The Wildcats in many ways have exceeded what might have been expected of them in this tournament, given how they rolled second-round opponent Alabama, how they survived a periodically shaky outing against West Virginia’s physical pressure defense, how they endured a terrible shooting performance in the Elite Eight against Texas Tech and then stormed through a talented, capable Kansas team that had contained Duke’s five pros just five days earlier.
Their matchup against Michigan is less advantageous than against Kansas, but the Wildcats own a greater array of reliable weapons than any team. They have six players who can score 25 in a game, if necessary. For the second time in three years, the title will be theirs.