March has come and gone and, in the blink of an eye, we’re now in April. The NCAA Men’s championship game is here and the matchup is set.
The game features a 1-seed in Villanova that many picked to get here and many chose to win it all. Their opponent is the 3-seeded Michigan Wolverines, who once sat at 19-7 after a loss to Northwestern in early February.
But that was their most recent loss, U of M is arguably the hottest team in college hoops at the moment. They are on a 14 game winning streak and that has led them to a Big 10 tournament championship and their spot in the championship game tonight. But it will be a mighty tough task if they want to keep that streak alive.
While Michigan might be the hottest team in the country, the team they are facing just may be the best squad in the nation. Villanova is on a ten game winning streak of their own and have annihilated their competition in the tournament. They’ve won every game of the tourney by double-digits, with their smallest margin of victory being 12 against West Virginia and Texas Tech and their biggest margin being 26 against Radford.
Oh, and the Wildcats just might have the best player in college basketball in Jalen Brunson. The AP Player of the Year and Wooden Award finalist has averaged 17.6 points per game in the five game of the tournament. That is slightly under his season average of 19.2, but he is still a fantastic player who is tough to stop.
He also has a teammate, Mikal Bridges, who is most likely a lottery pick in this years NBA draft. He has averaged 14.8 PPG during the tournament, which is also under his season average of 17.6, but these two are a dynamic duo who are tough to contain.
But the Wolverines have a dynamite combination of their own. Moritz Wagner and Charles Matthews have played great during Michigan’s tourney run and are going to be huge keys in this game. Wagner has averaged 14.8 PPG game during the tournament, a little above his 14.6 season average. He also went off in U of M’s Final Four matchup against Loyola-Chicago, and scored 24 points and had 15 rebounds.
But Matthews has been the key cog in the Maize and Blue’s offense all tournament long. He has averaged 16.6 PPG in the five games, which is well above his 13.1 season average. He has played more aggressively and been the spark this offense needs when its leading scorer, Wagner, hasn’t played up to par.
This game is a clash of two teams who are polar opposites. Villanova has been an offensive juggernaut all year and deadly from deep. They’ve averaged 84.8 points per game and they’ve shot 42% from behind the 3-point line during the tournament. That percentage from deep is actually a little better than their already great 40% on the year.
Michigan, on the other hand, has shot poorly from beyond the arc during the tournament. They are shooting an abysmal 31.7% from 3 and that is largely bolstered by a 14-24 showing against Texas A&M. They are also only averaging 70.2 PPG in their five games, which is also inflated thanks to the 99 they scored against A&M.
But John Beilein’s team has prided itself on its defense all year, and that has been the biggest reason they’ve made it this far. Michigan, during its five games in the tourney, has held their opponents to 58.6 PPG and a measly 24% from downtown. They will need to continue this stellar defensive play if they want to stay in this game.
There are also two players, besides Wagner and Matthews, for U of M who need to come up big if they want to come out victorious. Those two guys are Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
Simpson is the floor general for Michigan’s offense and will need to play better than he did against Loyola. He was scoreless and only had three assists in Saturday’s game. He will need to score, at least a few points, for his team to win this one. Simpson is also the leader of this defense, but he will have a tough task in guarding Brunson. He is used to hounding the opposing point guard and had played great all year on that end, but Brunson will be his hardest matchup by far. Slowing him down may be the key to a U of M victory.
As for MAAR, he will need to be a spark for this offense. He went 2-11 from the field for 7 points against the Ramblers on Saturday. He will need to be a lot more effective against Villanova if he wants to end his Michigan career as a champion.
Now for my prediction. While the betting line in Vegas currently sits anywhere between Nova being favored by 6 and 7, I think this game will be closer than most think. Both teams are talented and can be dangerous from deep. But I think Jay Wright ultimately gets his second championship and the Wildcats win 84-79.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wolverines got hot like they did against Texas A&M and get U of M’s second championship in school history. After all, I predicted this team to get to the Final Four before the tournament started and they exceeded that by reaching the title game.
This team definitely has the talent to leave San Antonio as NCAA champions. Only time will if they will.