Villanova and Michigan will meet for a national championship matchup Monday night after winning their respective national semifinal matchups Saturday at the Final Four. The Wildcats looked impressive in a rout of Kansas, setting a Final Four record by drilling 14 three-pointers in 21 minutes (and 18 overall). The Wolverines, meanwhile, sent home the tournament’s giant-killing Cinderella in Loyola-Chicago by hitting their stride late in the game thanks to Moritz Wagner’s dominant performance.
Who has the edge? (Hint: It’s Villanova). But this isn’t a seven-game series. Michigan can certainly win this showdown by playing inspired basketball and executing a well-designed John Beilein game plan. Here’s a look at how each team could win:
Villanova’s path to the title game: The Wildcats easily beat Radford in the first round, Alabama in the second round, West Virginia in the Sweet 16, Texas Tech in the Elite Eight and Kansas in the Final Four.
Michigan’s path to the title game: The Wolverines cruised past Montana in the first round, edged Houston off a buzzer-beater in the second round, crushed Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, escaped Florida State in the Elite Eight and knocked off Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four.
► How the Wildcats can cut down the nets: Play defense like they did against Texas Tech and offense like they did against Kansas. The thing about the Wildcats’ hot shooting is that it deflates another team’s momentum and throttles any counter-runs. National player of the year Jalen Brunson has been the leader with his efficient play all tournament, and he also makes everyone around him better.
► How the Wolverines can cut down the nets: Michigan will need to play aggressor like it did in the closing stretch against Loyola, and use a collaborative offensive effort and a smothering defense on Villanova’s perimeter attack. Kansas tried everything, including a zone. Beilein can learn from Kansas’ failures, but he’ll have to mix it up defensively to keep the Wildcats on their heels. Against West Virginia, a press was effective in throwing Villanova off its rhythm so the more pressure then the less tempo Villanova can control.
► Key player for Villanova: Eric Paschall. The big man’s 24 points off 10-for-11 shooting gave the Wildcats a gigantic boost and different dimension offensively. If Paschall and fellow big man Omari Spellman are stretching the floor then it takes pressure off the already-lethal Villanova guards.
► Key player for Michigan: Wagner. While the Wolverines have a fair share of X-factor players, namely Charles Matthews, Wagner has the ability to stretch the floor with his outside shooting and shift a game’s momentum with his motor and energy. He doesn’t just make big dunks or clutch three-pointers, he hits them in crucial situations that help put the game out of reach.
The pick: Villanova. If Michigan topples a much better Villanova team it would be an upset. That’s not so much disrespect to Michigan as much as it is a testament of how much Villanova has come into its own in this tournament. In three wins against Big 12 opponents (West Virginia in the Sweet 16, Texas Tech in the Elite Eight and Kansas in the Final Four), the Wildcats have grown into an offense on a ridiculously high level and a defense that’s just as elite.