Michigan Championship Game Preview and Prediction

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.

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Prediction for Michigan’s NCAA Tournament Journey

Selection Sunday has come and gone. The brackets are made up and teams are either happy, upset, or content with where they were/were not seeded and placed.

The Michigan Wolverines coming off a strong 28-7 record and a Big Ten tournament championship were rewarded with the 3 seed in the West Region. While some may have thought they deserved a 2 seed after reaching number 7 in the AP and Coaches Poll, a 3 seed seems pretty fitting to me.

Their first game will be Thursday night at 9:50 p.m. ET against the Grizzlies of Montana. The Griz received a 14 seed after a 26-7 record and winning the Big Sky tournament.

I’ll go through each round for Michigan and predict whether they will win and advance or lose and head back to Ann Arbor. For the sake of making too many predictions, I will just assume the higher seed will win in Michigan’s potential games.

First Round: Michigan’s first round game, as mentioned earlier, will be against the Montana Grizzlies. While the Grizzlies had a nice season and won the Big Sky, I believe the Wolverines will be a tough matchup and handle them rather easily. Their two leading scorers, Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine, make up the backcourt. Michigan has a dynamic defensive duo in their backcourt, Zavier Simpson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, that I think will more than hold their own. Michigan advances with a 76-59 win.

Second Round: Michigan’s second round match-up would come against the Houston Cougars. Houston had a pretty solid season with a 26-6 record and 14-4 in the AAC. They rely heavily on the play of senior guard Rob Gray who averages over 18 points a game. However I think Duncan Robinson and Charles Matthews will carry this squad to a close victory in this one and a second consecutive Sweet 16 berth. Michigan wins 71-65.

Sweet 16: Michigan’s Sweet 16 match-up may be their toughest match-up throughout the entire tournament. They would face the North Carolina Tar Heels, who defeated U of M 86-71 earlier in the season. Michigan was a struggling team back then and hadn’t quite found themselves yet. I think this time around things can and will be different. Zavier Simpson has grown and his battle with Joel Berry II will be a fierce one. I believe Michigan will come out victorious in this one 68-66 and advance to the Elite 8.

Elite 8: The Xavier Musketeers would be the team Michigan would face in the Elite 8 if the seeding held true. They have a high scoring offense and average over 84 points a contest. Senior Trevon Bluiett leads the offensive attack by scoring over 19 points a game. He is a fantastic talent and Michigan will have to work as team to slow this young man down. But I believe the Maize and Blue will come out ready to rock and roll in this one and Moe Wagner will show up and produce a double-double and lead his team to the victory. U of M advances to the Final Four in San Antonio with a 81-74 win.

Because predicting the Final Four match-ups would lead to too much of a guessing game (and picking the highest seed doesn’t seem right as the odds of all the number 1 seeds making it there are highly unlikely) I will just finish up my prediction this way.

I honestly believe this is one of John Beilein’s best teams he’s ever coached and has the potential talent to reach the Final Four. I think when they are on offensively, they can hang with and beat anyone in the country because of the way this team plays on the defensive end. They play as a team and take care of the ball. They also don’t commit many fouls, which will bode well in a one and done style format as well.

Michigan has a legitimate star in Moe Wagner. The others who contribute are no slouches either and they all do their part to lead this team. Simpson, Matthews, Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman have all carried their own weight and had their moments this season. And that also goes without mentioning players such as Isaiah Livers, Jordan Poole and Jon Teske, who have also contributed greatly to this team.

I’ll end with making a final prediction for this squad. I truly believe they will make the Final Four, but will ultimately end up losing to either Virginia or Arizona in their match-up with the South Region winner. Just because I don’t have them winning it all or making it to the championship game, I wouldn’t be shocked if this team did cut the nets down April 2nd.

This team can do it, but will they?

That’s the fun part of March Madness. Everyone thinks they know who will advance, but upsets are awaiting unsuspecting teams and Cinderella’s are waiting to be born.

Let the madness begin.

Grading Michigan’s Roster Halfway Through Conference Play

Michigan has played nine Big Ten games so far and have nine more to go. Their record in these nine conference contests is 6-3, which is currently good for fourth in the Big Ten behind Ohio State (9-0), Purdue (8-0), and Michigan State (6-2). The Wolverines have also played 22 games overall and sit at 17-5.

I would like to go through U of M’s roster and grade each player so far based on their expectations heading into the season and their performance so far now that conference play if halfway over. While the roster is composed of 17 players, I am only going to grade players who have played in at least half of the teams games so far (my apologies to C.J. Baird, Austin Davis, Brent Hibbitts, Naji Ozeir, Rico Ozuna-Harrison, and Luke Wilson).

I am going to list the remaining players alphabetically and talk about how each player has performed so far and what they can improve on moving forward. I will then give each player a grade.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman– The senior is currently third on the team in both points per game (10.5) and rebounds per game (4.0). He also is one of the best in the nation with a 5.82 assist-to-turnover ratio. The one improvement I was hoping to see from MAAR this year was in his scoring. He has improved on his 9.1 PPG from last year but his shooting percentages overall and from beyond the three-point line have dropped. He needs to attack the basket more and get to the free throw line more often as he is shooting a crisp 87% from the charity stripe. Abdur-Rahkman needs to show a little more senior leadership as this season moves forward as well.

Mid-Season Grade: B-

Eli Brooks– The freshman point guard has been a solid option off the bench for coach John Beilein. He provides a spark in his limited action and has held his own while giving starter Zavier Simpson a breather. His biggest knock so far on the season has got to be his shooting. He is shooting an abysmal 29% from the field and an even worse 25% from 3. Brooks needs to improve on his shooting if he wants to be a consistent contributor to the team.

Mid-Season Grade: B-

Isaiah Livers– The freshman from Kalamazoo has had a great season so far. He is averaging 4.6 PPG while shooting a fantastic 52% from the field and 41% from downtown. He has also taken his new starting role in stride. He came in for the struggling senior Duncan Robinson and has held his own against other teams starters. The one knock I have for Livers is his rebounding. He is 6’7″ but is only averaging 2.6 RPG. I think this can, and will, improve as he learns how to play with the big boys.

Mid-Season Grade: A-

Charles Matthews– The transfer from Kentucky is having a fine season so far, leading the Wolverines with 14.6 PPG and is second on the squad with 5.2 RPG. He is fearless when attacking the rim and is shooting over 52% from the field. His one weakness is shooting from beyond the arc. His 33% from 3-point range needs to improve as the season progresses and if this team wants to be successful come postseason play.

Mid-Season Grade: B

Jordan Poole– The freshman from Milwaukee has been a revelation off the bench for Coach Beilein so far. He is fifth on the team with 6.3 PPG in only ten minutes per contest. He is shooting over 41% from deep and 49% from the field overall. The biggest struggle for Poole so far has been his court vision. His assist-to-turnover ratio is an awful 1:2 as he has only seven assists on the season to 14 turnovers. That needs to improve if this young buck wants to see more minutes off the bench.

Mid-Season Grade: A-

Duncan Robinson– Even though Robinson, a fifth year player, was demoted from the starting lineup and replaced by a freshman, he is still contributing nicely. He is fourth on the team in PPG (9.0) and has the best free-throw percentage (minimum 10 attempts) with a sparkling 92%. His area of weakness is on the defensive end and is usually a lot slower or undersized compared to many of the players he is defending.

Mid-Season Grade: B

Jaaron Simmons– The graduate transfer from Ohio has provided this team with some solid play in a backup point guard role with a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But I was expecting more from the 2017 first-team All-MAC selection, especially on the offensive end. He averaged 15.9 PPG last year while shooting 43% from the field, 34% from beyond the arc and 72% from the FT line. I know his role has diminished since his days as a Bobcat and the Mid-American Conference is a far cry from the Big Ten, but his dip in shooting percentages is alarming. This year he is shooting 26% overall, 20% from 3-point range and 62% from the charity stripe. Maybe I was just expecting a little too much.

Mid-Season Grade: C

Zavier Simpson– The sophomore, who dropped the “X” from his name and took on a “Z”, has played outstanding so far this season. He is leading the Wolverines with 3.5 assists per game and 1.2 steals per game. Simpson has taken on the role of starting point guard for this team and has led them admirably after learning under the U of M great Derrick Walton, Jr. last year. His biggest area of improvement has got to be at the free-throw line. He is only shooting 51% from the line and some teams have gone with the “Hack-A-Shaq” approach with him late in games.

Mid-Season Grade: A-

Jon Teske– The sophomore has played pretty well when he has had to fill in for Moe Wagner, whether it be for injury or foul trouble, this season. He is fourth on team with 3.6 RPG, which is nice, but I also think this is the area where Teske can improve. He is 7’1″ and is usually one of the biggest guys on the court. He needs to use that big body of his to accrue even more rebounds in his time on the court.

Mid-Season Grade: B

Moritz Wagner– The big man from Germany has had an excellent junior campaign so far. He is second on the team in scoring with 14.3 PPG and is first with 7.1 RPG. He has also produced four double-doubles. Wagner’s biggest area of improvement though has got to do with his consistency. He’s had some monster games (21 points, 10 rebounds against UC Riverside, 27 and 4 against Michigan State, 18 and 11 vs. Maryland) but he has also produced some duds (4 points and 6 boards at Iowa and 2 points with 7 rebounds at Nebraska). Wagner is a tremendous talent and just needs to play like he is every game.

Mid-Season Grade: B+

Ibi Watson– The sophomore has provided a nice option off the bench for the Maize and Blue. He is only averaging 2.8 PPG, albeit in only 6 minutes per game, and is shooting a nice 37.5% from downtown. Watson’s biggest knock is his size (6’5″ but only 200 pounds) and is generally undersized when Beilein uses him in small forward role. But he is still young and will continue to grow and get stronger as the year moves on.

Mid-Season Grade: B-

 

 

 

Michigan Basketball: Early Season Recap

Through the first 12 games of the 2017-2018 college basketball season, the Michigan Wolverines are off to a 9-3 start. While this may seem like a solid start for coach John Beilein’s young Wolverines in a rebuilding year after losing standouts Derrick Walton, Jr., Zak Irvin and D.J. Wilson from last year’s group, they should be off to an even better start.

Out of their three losses so far, the only game they should’ve lost was at North Carolina. They were flat-out outplayed and outmatched against the Tar Heels, who are currently one of the best teams in the country with a 9-1 record and a #7 ranking.

Even though they should’ve won this game, I’ll even throw out the loss against the LSU Tigers (who are sitting at 6-2 at the moment and will most likely be a middle of the pack team in the SEC) in part because it was played in the Maui Invitational and anything can happen in a tournament setting.

The biggest, and most painful, game so far in this young season, is the loss against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Michigan had OSU on the ropes and were up 20 points late in the first half before allowing the Buckeyes to go on a 26-3 run and ultimately losing 71-62. This one hurts not only because it was a game that Michigan should have won, but it was against a rival, a fellow Big Ten opponent and a win would’ve allowed them to start off conference play with a 2-0 record. Instead, they sit at 1-1.

But after that loss, Michigan rallied and picked up two wins against quality opponents. They beat the UCLA Bruins at the Crisler Center after trailing by as many as 15 points in the second half. Beilein and his team then went on the road to Texas and beat the Longhorns and talented freshman Mo Bamba, who is averaging both double-digit points and rebounds through 8 games this season.

Michigan’s next three games come against Detroit Mercy, Alabama A&M, and Jacksonville University. If they beat these teams like expected, they should head into the new year and Big Ten play with a 12-3 overall record and they will sit 1-1 in conference play as well. They then end their regular season with 16 straight against conference foes.

The Big Ten is a very talented conference this year with a legitimate national title contender in Michigan State and other high quality teams in Minnesota and Purdue. The rest of the Big Ten teams are no scrubs either and the Wolverines will have their work cut out for them if they want to be successful in conference play.

I believe Michigan will have to work on three things during their next three games to get on track once Big Ten play starts in January.

The first key is improvement from the free-throw line. As a team, they are shooting a meager 63.5% from the charity stripe. While many players can improve, they need their best players (Moe Wagner and Charles Matthews) to get better in this area. While both are having solid years in other aspects of their game, Wagner is shooting an ok 65% while Matthews, the transfer from Kentucky, is shooting an awful 49%. Both of these players need to do better from the line and this will help the team out because both of their scoring averages will go up if they shoot better free-throw percentages.

The next key for this team to be ready for Big Ten play is that coach Beilein has to figure out his point guard situation. Sophomore Zavier Simpson and freshmen Eli Brooks and Jordan Poole have all had their opportunities to run this offense at one point or another. Poole is the best scorer of the bunch but Simpson and Brooks are better distributors of the basketball. My guess is that Simpson, the eldest of the trio, and one that learned under the four-year veteran Walton last year, will eventually take over the reins and take control of this team at the point guard position. But Poole and Brooks have talent and will still contribute to the team regardless.

The third thing that I think this Michigan team needs to do in order to succeed is to rely on, and get better play from, their senior leaders. Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman are the two fourth-year players who play meaningful minutes for this squad. Both are great shooters (both are shooting over 92% from the free-throw line) and are usually good shooters from beyond the arc as well but are shooting poorly from the field and on their three-point attempts. Both Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman are shooting under 35% from deep and under 40% overall. These two are both talented basketball players and have shown flashes of greatness before and this youthful U of M team will need some veteran leadership down the stretch if they want to have a successful season.

I believe this team has the talent, and coaching, to be the second or third best team (behind MSU of course) in a powerful Big Ten conference. They just need to come together and rely on one another to play to their fullest capabilities.

While they haven’t played the greatest so far in this young season, they haven’t played bad either and I think their best basketball is ahead of them. It should be a fun and exciting rest of the season for Michigan basketball.