Michigan and Villanova will square off Monday night to settle the NCAA championship in San Antonio. The matchup is intriguing in many ways as it pits college basketball’s best team versus the hottest over the last 15 games.
There are many ways you can look at this game and find key areas and points of emphasis to determine who will be crowned NCAA champions late Monday night. This article will hone in on the matchup between Michigan’s defensive tone-setter and the best defender in the Big Ten, sophomore Zavier Simpson against the best point guard in college basketball, senior Jalen Brunson.
Zavier Simpson vs. Jalen Brunson
Did anyone think Simpson would be this good defensively so soon in his career?
It was easy to see his defensive potential coming into Michigan, but Simpson has blossomed throughout his sophomore season under new assistant coach Luke Yaklich’s defensive system. His bulldog approach to man-to-man and ball screen defense has challenged other wings like Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and center Mo Wagner to commit more to the defensive end and the results have been incredible. Michigan is no. 3 in defensive efficiency. Its previous high in the Beilein era was 37th which last happened in 2012-13 when Michigan finished runner-up to NCAA “champion” Louisville.
Tonight is the ultimate test of Michigan’s defensive turnaround. Villanova is the best team offensively in the country, and are led by the best point guard in the country - Jalen Brunson. The Wildcats will test Michigan’s defense in a multitude of ways. Brunson will try to break people down off the dribble, but the Wildcats are just as comfortable swinging the ball around the perimeter and finding the open man for a three. Villanova has eight players that average over 35 percent from distance. As basketball changes to a game of all players, no matter height or size, being able to shoot from all over the floor, Villanova best represents and showcases this shift.
Any chance of Michigan slowing down the offense of Villanova starts with Simpson. It will be too much to ask for Simpson to shut down Brunson, but he needs to make him work on the offensive end and make him uncomfortable. An example this season of this working well was a Villanova loss to Providence in mid-February. The Friars hounded Brunson and ran Villanova’s shooters off the three-point line and upset the Wildcats 76-71. Brunson ended with 14 points without a three-pointer, fouled out, and committed seven turnovers. Villanova ended up 3-20 from the three-point line. I would venture to guess that coach Beilein and his staff checked out that game tape to prepare for tonight’s game.
Expect Michigan to muddy up the game tonight and try to keep it in the 60’s. According to KenPom’s numbers, both teams are not very fast tempo-wise. Villanova comes in at 231st in the country, while Michigan is 309th. If Michigan can limit Villanova’s formidable three-point attack, they can be in this right until the end. Villanova isn’t a particularly good offensive rebounding team, a weakness of Michigan, so the boards should be about even. Simpson will be the key to making this happen tonight and has an incredible opportunity to influence and dictate how the game is played on the defensive and offensive ends.
It has been an incredible run for Michigan over its 14-game winning streak. The Wolverines look to complete this turnaround with an improbable national championship. Should they do so tonight, Zavier Simpson will have done his part on the defensive end, slowing down one of the best players in college basketball.