- If the Wolverines have a fighting chance against the favorite Wildcats, Michigan will have to keep Villanova's many shooters at bay.
SAN ANTONIO — After celebrating Michigan’s national semifinal win against Loyola-Chicago for a few minutes, Wolverines assistant Luke Yaklich took his courtside seat for tipoff of Kansas-Villanova. While Michigan players and head coach John Beilein discussed the win with reporters, Yaklich learned exactly how difficult his next 48 hours would be as the Wildcats roared to a 22-4 lead by making six of their first nine three-point attempts.
The game was less than seven minutes old, but it was effectively over. Villanova players fed off each make, while Kansas players deflated more with each passing swish. “Wow,” Yaklich thought to himself. “They can really shoot the basketball.” Later, Yaklich’s son Griffin asked the question that could decide a national title.
How are we going to make them miss?
Villanova presents an array of issues for opponents, but the most vexing is this: The Wildcats have several lineup combinations in which all five players are capable of shooting accurately from three-point range. This is why Villanova hit a Final Four-record 18 threes in its 95-79 win against the Jayhawks. The Wildcats tied the previous record of 13 in the first half. Watch all those shots and imagine how Yaklich—who in his first season is giving football’s Don Brown a run for the title of best defensive coordinator in Ann Arbor—felt as he watched them fall.
Or just ask Yaklich how he felt.
“You have to be sound in your principle and sound in your execution of fundamental defensive principles,” he said. “Because at any point, it only takes a second or two of an error and the ball is going in the basket.”
That’s the common thread on most of those 13 makes. Someone didn’t rotate. Someone didn’t flash. Someone switched on a screen instead of playing under. Someone helped inside without considering that a shooter was left wide open. This is why the Wildcats rank No. 12 in the nation in three-point attempt rate (the percentage of field goal attempts from three-point range) at 47.5 percent but rank third in the nation in three pointers attempted (1,131). They do not chuck indiscriminately, which is why they make 40.1 percent of their three-pointers. Villanova has made double-digit three-pointers in 25 games. The Wildcats are 23-2 in those games. Villanova has made at least 15 three-pointers in 12 games. The Wildcats are 12-0 in those games.
If the Wildcats enter the mode they played in on Saturday night or on Feb. 17, when they hit 16 of 34 three-point attempts in a 95-79 win against future No. 1 seed Xavier, Michigan stands no chance. It will be up to the Wolverines to keep Villanova from making so many three-pointers, and the best way to do that is to keep them from shooting so many three-pointers.
During Michigan’s 14-game win streak, only twice has an opponent attempted more than its average from three-point range. Those opponents have averaged 27.8 percent from three-point range. That includes Loyola-Chicago, a pace-and-space team that averaged 18.4 three-point attempts a game but took only 10 (and made only one) against Michigan.
This is the result of a conscious defensive choice by the Wolverines to force the least efficient shots possible. Statistically speaking, lay-ups and three-pointers are the most valuable shots. So Michigan tries to funnel opponents toward contested mid-range jumpers. “It's like baseball. People don't sacrifice bunt anymore. It still bothers me when they don't sacrifice bunt,” Beilein joked. “But the analytics say don't do it. Go for the three-run homer or the two-run homer.” In essence, Michigan is trying to force its opponents to play what a baseball fan would call Small Ball.
The problem with trying to do that against Villanova is the Wildcats stress every defender on every possession. Their best post player is 6'9" Omari Spellman, and while he can dunk over defenders and grab offensive rebounds, he also has made 65 of 148 three-point attempts this season. He leads Villanova in three-point shooting percentage by a gnat’s whisker over 6'7" wing Mikal Bridges. We have yet to mention point guard Jalen Brunson, the Associated Press national player of the year, or Eric Paschall, who scored a team-high 24 on 10-of-11 shooting (and four-of-five from three-point range) on Saturday.
“They can all shoot,” Michigan center Mo Wagner said. “They're really, really efficient at multiple positions. Usually when you play a good team, there's usually something you can give up and can make a defensive game plan. But that's not the case here.”
Then Wagner paused for a moment. “You know what? It’s not supposed to be easy,” he said. “It's the national championship.”
And Michigan’s only chance of winning it is to force Villanova inside the three-point line or get buried like the Jayhawks did.