Michigan and Villanova have been the have been the two best teams in the country since February 1st. Now they’ll play for a National Championship on Monday night (9:20 p.m., TBS).
Villanova reached No. 1 in the polls by the sixth week of the season while it took 11 weeks for John Beilein’s team to even crack the top 25.
National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson started as a freshman on Villanova’s 2016 Championship team. Moritz Wagner played 8.6 minutes per game for a Michigan team that barely made the First Four that year.
The Wildcats feel like a team that was destined to reach this point while Michigan has steadily built its way to this stage brick-by-brick largely without any attention.
Villanova is favored and has the better players on paper — all five Villanova starters have better offensive ratings than Michigan’s starters — but there are just 40 minutes separating either team from the ultimate goal.
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. (Beilein said Sunday he doesn’t consider Michigan to 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 after it clinched a Final Four berth.
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.