2018 NCAA championship game: The fascinating questions for Villanova vs. Michigan
One more game to go, so who's going to win it all? Here are the key factors to Monday night's championship game
After what we all were witnesses to in March, it'd be.
Monday night is the first time we've had a top-three KenPom defense play a top-three KenPom offense in the national title game since, well, the last time Michigan was in this spot. In 2013, Louisville had the No. 1-rated defense; Michigan was No. 1 on O. The D won out, as Louisville took a title that would be vacated almost five years later. ( be retroactive champions in the wake of the NCAA stripping the Cardinals of their banner.)
But 2018 is a script-flip. Michigan, normally serene and slicing on offense, plays the role of pliable stalwart. The Wolverines will try to throw a chill on a flame-throwing Villanova gang that is frighteningly guilt-free in its 3-point assault. Michigan's 33 wins to date are a school record. Villanova's boasting its best team in school history, as I wrote .
I spoke with both coaching staffs on Sunday to get a sense of the expected. On the Michigan side, a big point of curiosity is how their players adapt to Villanova's pace-and-space style. Michigan just beat a Loyola team that does some of the same things Villanova does, only not as dominantly and with players who are not NBA-bound.
"Villanova is just another form of Loyola and probably a little taller, a few shot blockers inside and just probably better in some respects and maybe not in some others," Beilein said. "And really a great example of how the game should be played, just like Loyola was. We're going to do everything we can to meet that challenge."
Regardless, Michigan coaches said the Ramblers wound up being an ideal opponent to scout, scheme and play against right before having to take on mighty Villanova. How the Wolverines step on the floor and immediately adapt to Villanova's attack is going to be critical, Wolverines assistant Luke Yaklich said.
For the Wildcats, let me put it this way: I asked associate head coach Ashley Howard what his biggest question was heading into Monday night.
"If we're going to come out and drill 13 3s in the first half -- that's the unknown," Howard said.
Yeah. Pretty much. A near-duplication of the first half against Kansas would be outlandish, but it isn't out of the question. Aside from that, Villanova's staff is all too aware that Beilein is known for his in-game adjustments and pre-game prep. They know Moritz Wagner is a viable counter to the stretch bigs Nova has. And in terms of schematics and what the tape is showing, the staff told me that Butler is the closest team to Michigan that Villanova has faced this season.
As the eagerness for the title tilt to tip increases, here are the biggest questions surrounding Monday night's game.
Is Villanova's offense the best we've ever seen?
Saturday night's exhibit was convincing. The Wildcats scored a debilitating 1.34 points per possession against Kansas. VU's 18 3-pointers set a Final Four record, and its 66 treys in this tournament is also an unmatched number in the event's history. Even if this is not the best offense ever, it's right there at the top in the KenPom era (since 2001-02). That open discussion could close Monday night.
From a statistical perspective, the only team who's offense was more efficient was Wisconsin in 2014-15. But that Badgers team didn't win the national title. If Villanova puts up 75 or more on a top-three defensive unit in Michigan and wins it all? It's going to have a really good case.
Does Villanova's defense end Michigan's turnover streak?
The Wildcats players preach about their pride on defense relentlessly. It's a bit boilerplate, but the mindset has obviously worked. Yt here's this: Michigan has committed 15 or fewer turnovers in their last 72 games. As in: more than two seasons worth of games. No team in the country can match that streak. Villanova doesn't need to win by turning teams over, but if defense is going to indeed win the day and the championship, putting an end to that streak would verify its talking points.
Can Michigan's 3-point defense push Nova out of its comfort zone?
The Wolverines were terrific on the perimeter against Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers had their worst 3-point shooting showing of the season (1 for 10). John Beilein's team is going to have to get something similar on Monday night in order to have a shot. Villanova making 35 percent or better of its 3-pointers would almost certainly spell doom for Michigan, which is 1-5 all time in the national title game.
Defense is offense for Michigan here, I think. Try and "extend" the 3-point line, as they say, and then hope a lower-scoring, slower-paced game allows for Michigan to get more inside. Speaking of which ...
There's no way Moe Wagner is that good again, right?
Wagner had 24 points and 15 rebounds against an overmatched Loyola-Chicago team in the semifinals. It was arguably the best game of his career. I asked him about that here.
Wagner became only the third player in Final Four history to have a 20-and-15 game, joining Houston's Akeem Olajuwon (as he went by then) and Indiana State's Larry Bird. That's just amazing. He feasted on the Ramblers' lack of an interior presence, gobbling up buckets and boards with second-chance opportunities -- and sinking three 3-pointers to further devastate. Asking Wagner to duplicate Saturday's game is an impossibility, but he'll almost certainly need 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds to give the Wolverines hope.
Jay Wright is already impressed. He said this on Sunday: "In the Loyola game, he shot-faked with his right hand and threw a left-handed bounce pass back door for a layup. Who does that? You don't see point guards do that. He has the ability to beat you in any way. I think he's one of those players that you're not going to shut him down. You just gotta hope you can minimize his influence on the game."
Do Nova's bigs feast on Michigan the way they did vs. Kansas?
A lot of focus will rightfully be on Wagner, but how about the greatness from Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall against Kansas? Paschall was 10-of-11 from the field, making him only one of five players to ever shoot better than 90 percent in a Final Four game when taking at least 11 shots. Paschall finished with a game-high 24 points plus eight rebounds. Omari Spellman went for 15 points and 13 rebounds. Fabulous stuff, considering how much attention goes to Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges.
Michigan assistant Saddi Washingotn has the scout for Monday's game. Containing -- or attempting to contain -- Spellman from the outside in will be an intriguing plot line to this game. Put Wagner on him? And if so, task 7-foot-1 Jon Teskie or 6-7 freshman Isaiah Livers on Paschall, who's a hoss? This is why Villanova is a nightmare to prepare for.
Rude awakening for Michigan?
The Wolverines have earned their spot in this title game, and with the exception of the escape against Houston in the second round, played well enough to validate their run to this point. But from a seeding perspective, nobody's ever had it easier through five games in the bracket. Michigan is the first team in tournament history to reach the national title game without playing a team seeded fifth or better.
Now comes a force of nature with Villanova.
If this game gets out of hand fast, keep that in mind. Michigan finished fifth in the Big Ten, played tremendously well in Manhattan to take its league tournament, but hasn't played a top-20 program in more than a month. It will need to adapt quickly in order to keep itself close against Nova. Another thing: Michigan doesn't have an All-American. If it wins the title, it would be only the fourth team in the past 20 years to take the championship without having an AP All-American on its roster. Coincidentally, 2016 Villanova was one of those teams, and 2008 Kansas, which won the title in San Antonio a decade ago, is another. (Florida from 2006 is the fourth.)
Can the Big Ten drought end?
The 2000 Michigan State Spartans are, perhaps infamously, the last Big Ten team to win the national title. This has led to some soft criticism in recent years for the conference. It's not fair, but it's a talking point nonetheless. Since 2000, the Big Ten has seen these teams lose in the title game: Indiana (2002), Illinois (2005), Ohio State (2007), Michigan State (2009), Michigan (2013) and Wisconsin (2015).
"At this time of year, I've heard those thoughts before, I just can't -- I think every team gets to this point and wins this game, it's not always the best team, it's the team that had a few breaks along the way," Beilein said. "But it's not like any of us are saying, 'Well, Big Ten is not very good. We haven't won a national championship.' The Big Ten is as strong as any league as out there, and the breaks haven't gone our way in a couple of games and other people have. And maybe things will change. If they don't, it doesn't change. The Big Ten is good and it's really good -- 14-deep good with incredible coaches. And I'm not carrying that weight on our back or the Michigan weight."
The league keeps kicking on that door but it won't swing ajar. Will the Wolverines finally break the spell?
That, along with so many other reasons, is why this game has given us a lot to discuss and look forward to. Either top-seeded Villanova wins its second title in three years and defines itself once and for all as a contemporary blue blood, or No. 3 Michigan gets John Beilein -- who is 1,259 games deep into his college coaching career -- his first national championship.
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