Well, here we are. After thousands of games and hundreds of battles for the Big Ten, we find ourselves getting ready for the final night of the 2017-’18 season. It’s been quite a ride already and in just a few hours, the Michigan Wolverines will play for greatness. The game will tipoff at 9:19 PM ET and will be on TBS. Villanova is favored by 6.5.
People often overplay the unexpected nature of NCAA Tournament runs. We often hear about how “everyone doubted” a certain team before they proved the critics wrong. It’s a nearly endless rotation of writers anointing teams as the nation’s Cinderella.
And while Michigan might not be a Cinderella, it has been quite a ride.
Entering this season, Michigan was projected by most to make the Tournament, but as a distant contender in the Big Ten and for the second weekend of March. Many figured there would simply be too much to overcome for the Wolverines to overcome in the losses of Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton, and DJ Wilson.
And that’s how it looked early on. Michigan’s offense struggled and the team had no answer at point guard. In fact, during the game against UCLA on December 9th, Michigan found itself sitting at 7-3 overall and trailing what would become a First Four team at home. The Wolverines pulled out that game and things have been going nicely ever since.
Michigan now finds itself on the verge of winning its first national championship since 1989. It’s hard to believe that statement is real after how the season started, but the fantasy has turned into reality. The Wolverines are now 40 minutes away from history.
Unfortunately, an impenetrable brick wall stands in the way for Michigan. A final challenge for a group that has been able to rise above the opposition so regularly.
Can Michigan answer the bell?
Let’s take a look.
Keys To The Game:
1. Michigan’s defense better live up to the hype.
With the early exits of Cincinnati and Virginia, Michigan quickly became the best defensive team remaining in this year’s Tournament. The Wolverines are ranked third nationally in defensive efficiency and when the going has gotten tough, Michigan has relied on that side of the ball to get it through in big moments.
But the task will be tougher on Monday than ever before. Villanova is the nation’s best offensive team and is coming off a 95-point performance against Kansas on Saturday. The Wildcats are red hot and scored 1.34 points per possession against the Big 12 champions.
There’s no way Michigan will “shut down” Villanova in this game, but if the Wolverines can make the Wildcats uncomfortable, things will get interesting. The key will be contesting shots on the perimeter and staying on shooters. Villanova is first nationally in effective field-goal percentage and can light it up from three. That’s going to be tough to stop.
The brutal truth here is that Michigan needs its defense to show up to have a shot in Monday night’s game. There’s no reasonable route to victory without a stellar defensive performance. This has to be goal number one.
2. Zavier Simpson needs to rebound after a tough night.
Perhaps no Wolverine had a rougher performacne on Saturday than Zavier Simpson. After leading the team through most of March, he put up a clunker of a performance against Loyola (Chicago), finishing with zero points and four turnovers. It was frustrating regression for a player who has been so good lately.
And, on Monday night, Simpson will have the most difficult task of any Wolverine. He will be asked to go toe-to-toe with Jalen Brunson. During this season, Brunson has been electric with a 129.4 offensive rating and an incredible 41.3 clip from three-point range. He’s arguably the best player in the country and is the key to Villanova’s offense.
Like the point above, it’s unrealistic to think Simpson can shut down Brunson. It’s just not going to happen. But if he can make him play some inefficient basketball and limit his opportunities, it would be a huge development.
Simpson led the resurgence of Michigan this season and if the Wolverines stand a chance of delivering on Monday night, he will need to play well.
3. The role players will need to step up as well.
Look, let’s not avoid talking about the elephant in the room here. By any measure of success, Villanova is a better team than Michigan. We can debate about the gap between the two squads, but no reasonable person could look at the statistical profiles of the two teams and conclude that Michigan is the better squad.
However, games are not played on stat sheets. They’re played on the court and, as we all know, anything can happen in a 40 minute game. After all, many thought Virginia was the best team this season and the Cavaliers didn’t even make the Round of 32.
Craziness can happen. This is March.
The more important question will be how Michigan can make that craziness happen. The first few points are described above. The Wolverines need to make Villanova’s offense inconsistent and slow down its best player. If those two things don’t happen, Michigan probably doesn’t stand a chance.
But if Michigan can do the above, it’s then going to need something on the offensive side of the court to finish off the upset. Players like Charles Matthews and Moritz Wagner will need to perform, obviously, but the role players are also going to be tremendously important.
For instance, look at some of Michigan’s x-factors in Isaiah Livers, Jordan Poole, and Duncan Robinson. While these guys don’t need to dominate the offense, they need to be able to step up when Michigan looks to them. The Wolverines need Livers and/or Poole to hit a few big shots and for Robinson to have an “on” night from long range.
It’s not reasonable to think one of these role players will step up with 20+ points, but Wolverine fans should remember the performances of Spike Albrecht and Luke Hancock in the 2013 national championship game. Weird guys can show up in national championship games and Michigan needs to hope its role guys can do just that.
While Michigan’s run to the national championship game may have been unexpected, it now puts the Wolverines just 40 minutes away from winning it all. The team will need some players to step up, but don’t count anything out.