- What started as a field of 68 is down to two, as the Wildcats and Wolverines play for a national title on Monday night. The team that can control the tempo may be the one celebrating once the confetti falls.
The national championship game is set. Will Villanova win its second title in the last three years, or will Michigan win its second title in program history? Here are three early keys to the final game of the college basketball season.
1. Is Michigan’s defense up to the challenge?
The last time Michigan allowed more than 72 points in a game was the day before Super Bowl LII, when the Wolverines surrendered 73 points to Minnesota. Sure, it took overtime for the Golden Gophers to get there, and, yeah, the Wolverines won by three, but the fact remains that Michigan did allow more than 72 points at some point this season. It just hasn’t happened for a long time.
Michigan rode its defense to the brink of a national championship, holding its five tournament opponents to an average of 58.6 points. In the latest example of the Wolverines’ defensive excellence, they held Loyola to 57 points and 0.84 points per possession to end the Ramblers’ Cinderella run. They’ll face a much different challenge on Monday.
Villanova’s offense is the best in the country. It put that on display yet again in its 95–79 win over Kansas in the Final Four. The Wildcats rank first in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency, first in points per game and second in effective field goal percentage. If the score of Monday’s championship game gets into the 80s, Michigan will have to settle for its second runner-up finish in six seasons. Put simply, it just doesn’t have the offense to win a game against Villanova when the Wildcats are firing on all cylinders. That means the country’s hottest defense needs to be the most dominant unit on the floor if Michigan is going to cut down the nets in San Antonio.
2. Pace, pace, pace
So how does Michigan keep the championship game in the 60s or 70s? It all comes down to pace. Michigan has played at one of the slowest paces in the country all season, ranking 324th in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo out of 351 Division I teams. Villanova, meanwhile, ranks 160th in the country. That might not seem that fast, but it might as well be a completely different sport than what the Wolverines play. Michigan will need to do whatever it can to grind the game to a halt.
Here’s the problem for the Wolverines: They didn’t get much experience against uptempo teams this season. The Big Ten generally isn’t among the fastest conferences in the country, even during its best seasons. This was one of the league’s worst years in recent memory, and that led to an even slower brand of basketball than usual in the Midwest. Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota, all of which were nowhere near the at-large picture, ranked inside the top 100 in adjusted tempo. The next-fastest team in the Big Ten was Nebraska, which rated 214th in adjusted tempo. Among the conference’s four NCAA tournament teams, Purdue rated highest in adjusted tempo at 223rd.
In other words, Michigan will face a challenge like few others it has dealt with this season, and its ability to rise to that challenge will go a long way toward determining its upset chances.
3. Can anyone cool off Villanova?
The first two points assume that Michigan can scheme a way to contain Villanova’s offense. But is that even possible?
With all due respect to Virginia, Villanova has been the best team in the country all season, largely on the strength of its offense, which as detailed above is elite by any and all measures, both traditional and newfangled. As good as Michigan is on the defensive end, it might not be possible to slow down the Wildcats—or, perhaps more accurately, it might not be possible to slow them down to a point where they feel threatened.
Case in point: Villanova’s Elite Eight win over Texas Tech. The Red Raiders, which still sit fourth in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, forced the Wildcats into their worst offensive game of the year just one week ago. They scored just 71 points in that game, making four of their 24 attempts from behind the arc and shooting 33.3% from the field. Jalen Brunson was 4-for-18 from the floor, and Mikal Bridges was 3-for-10. They scored 1.08 points per possession, which is fine for most teams, but nowhere near their standards. In short, Texas Tech held Villanova as close to in check as is realistically possible—and still lost by 12.
If Michigan is going to pull off the upset, it will have to follow that same script, only with a better performance on the offensive end. That is much easier said than done against the best team in the country. If Villanova shows up with its A-game, it will reign supreme. If Michigan can force it into anything less, we could be in for a national championship game for the ages.