Michigan probably shouldn’t be in the national title game. The Wolverines needed missed free throws and a miracle three-pointer from freshman Jordan Poole just to squeak past Houston in the Round of 32. Since then, they’ve faced a seven-seed, a nine-seed, and an 11-seed as the basketball gods cleared a path to the biggest game of the 2017-18 college basketball season.
But while Michigan is a 6.5-point underdog against a juggernaut Villanova team, that doesn’t mean the Wolverines can’t ride their hot streak to the program’s second NCAA championship. The Wildcats have been untouchable since the calendar flipped to March, winning 10 straight games by double-figures — even a Big East championship game against Providence that almost got out of hand in overtime.
While Villanova has the talent and depth to bully opponents for 40 minutes at a time, the Wolverines have the power to punch back. Though relatively untested in the NCAA tournament, Michigan handled its business to close out a Big Ten title with comfortable wins over top 10 programs in Michigan State and Purdue. John Beilein’s road to the title game may have been easier than most, but this team is no fraud.
Here’s how it can prove it — and raise an NCAA championship banner in the process.
It all starts with Moritz Wagner
Wagner lived up to his hype to kick off the Final Four, burying Loyola-Chicago’s Cinderella bid under an avalanche of shooting and rebounds. His 24-point, 15-rebound performance kept the Ramblers from building an insurmountable lead early and gave a sleepy Wolverines team enough leeway to come back from a nine-point deficit with 12 minutes to play. It was an important return to form after needing 11 shots to score just 12 points in his team’s Elite Eight showdown with Florida State.
But putting up 24 and 15 against a Missouri Valley Conference team is one thing. Doing it against a Villanova team that held Kansas’ forwards Udoka Azubuike and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk to just 18 combined points and seven rebounds in 55 minutes will be a much tougher task.
Wagner’s energy is infectious, and at his best he can power his team to an underdog triumph — like he did as a 9.5-point dog on the road against Michigan State back in January. Wagner exploded for an ultra-efficient 27 points in 27 minutes to prove the Wolverines’ worthiness early in the season. A similar performance in the biggest game of his career would make him the catalyst Michigan needs to cut down the nets Monday night.
The Wolverines’ shooters have to show up from the first minute
Michigan’s three-point shooting was absent in the first 28 minutes of its Final Four game against Loyola, making just three of its first 21 attempts from long distance while trailing by as many as 10 points. Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman was the team’s worst offender, missing all five of his attempts from long range despite making nearly 39 percent of his threes coming into the game.
That shooting stabilized as the second half wound down, as the Wolverines finished the game on a 4-7 performance from behind the arc that helped close the door on any Rambler comeback. While Michigan was able to overcome its early struggles, it won’t be granted the same leeway against a ravenous Villanova team. The Wildcats jumped on Kansas early and led by double-digits for the final 35 minutes of their lopsided semi-final. No team is better at exploiting weakness than the one staring down the Wolverines Monday night.
That leaves no quarter for slow starts. Michigan has four regulars who made 37 percent of their three-point shots or better this season -- five if you count Poole, who is playing just 12 minutes per game in 2017-18. They’ll need each one to live up to that standard in order to drain the momentum-killing shots required to derail Villanova’s drama-killing runs.
Crank up the perimeter defense
Don’t forget this Villanova team lost a February matchup against a St. John’s team that lost 13 straight games en route to a 16-17 campaign. How did the Red Storm do it? By shutting down the Wildcats’ three-point shooting and avoiding the fouls that would give their then-No. 1 opponent the chance to close the scoring gap at the free throw line.
St. John’s held Villanova to just 8-33 shooting from long range and just 11 free throws to hold on for a 79-75 victory that earned headlines across the college basketball world. The Storm weren’t the only team to ride the Wildcats’ cold shooting to an upset win. Providence held ‘Nova to a 3-20 three-point performance in a game where the Friars’ pesky defense also forced a dozen turnovers from Jay Wright’s backcourt.
That’s a blueprint Michigan can follow. Beilein’s team ranks eighth in the nation in scoring defense and has allowed opponents to make just 32.7% of their threes this winter.
Priority No. 1 will be stopping All-American point guard Jalen Brunson. He’s averaged 17.6 points and 4.4 assists per game during the tournament, but he needed 14 shots to put up 15 points against Texas Tech in what’s turned out to be his team’s toughest game in the bracket so far. That’s not especially encouraging — ‘Nova still won by a dozen points — but St. John’s success shows how important slowing him can be.
Brunson scored 28 points against the Red Storm, but needed 21 shots to get there. While he was able to supplement a 2-11 performance from behind the arc with a 10-11 showing from the free throw line, he was the only Wildcat to have any success driving into the paint; the rest of his team combined for a single free throw.
That puts pressure on Michigan’s guards and swingmen to not just contain shooters all the way to the perimeter, but to prevent the dribble-drives that allow Villanova to bleed you to death at the free throw line. Saint John’s limited that damage and came away with one of the biggest upsets of the 2017-18 season. A similar performance could lead to an even more important victory on the biggest stage of them all.