And so we’ve arrived at the end. If this were a boxing match, we would be entering the 15th round. Win or lose, Michigan basketball’s season is coming to a close tonight. It’s been a lengthy journey, as the primary winter sports, hockey and basketball, are the NCAA’s longest and most grueling seasons, beginning when everyone cares about football and ending when college kids are ready for the summer. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, with ups and downs. For this Michigan team, that is truer than ever. There were moments in November, in Maui, December, in Columbus, January, in Lincoln, February, in Evanston, and March, in Wichita, that the pundits thought Michigan wasn’t up to snuff. But those were the moments that made these Wolverines as tough as nails. It hardened them and upped their mental toughness to a level unseen before.
Tonight they get a matchup with college basketball’s best: the Villanova Wildcats. At 35-4, Villanova has a chance to etch their name into the record books as one of the sport’s greatest teams, possessing unquestionably one of college basketball’s best offenses ever. They rain threes from all over and have an offensive wizard at point guard. It’s the largest spread (6.5) in any national title game since 2010. But ‘Nova will also be seeing the toughest defense they’ve faced all year in Michigan. It’s a clash of the titans and a chance for history.
A Contrast of Styles
If you watched the second Final Four game, you probably noticed Villanova assaulting Kansas early on with a barrage of three pointers. That’s the style for the Wildcats, a team with deadly three point shooters all around. They distribute the ball better than any other team in college basketball, always trying to find the open shot, and it’s created an offense that could be called a SuperNova. On the other side, Michigan does not allow many threes at all. Per umhoops.com and The Athletic’s Dylan Burkhardt, Michigan “has only allowed their opponents to attempt 29.8 percent of their shots from beyond the arc — the fifth-lowest rate in college basketball”. The Wolverines have been terrific at running teams off the arc and there’s no doubt that the game plan tonight will be to make Villanova beat Michigan inside. And there’s no question that that can happen. Villanova is that good.
On the flip side, Michigan has to have one of their best offensive outputs of the season. While their defense, which has only allowed an average of 61.8 points per game against over the last 17, gets all the attention, the offense will have to rise to the occasion too. Four of the five games that the Wolverines have won to get to Monday night have been atrocious shooting performances, especially from 3, where they’ve gone 24/111 in those four games. Their one other game, against Texas A&M, is what gives Michigan fans hope for Monday night. That type of bonkers offensive performance, 99 points on .619/.583/.875 shooting, is possible, for it happened against Maryland in February and Purdue in January. All Michigan needs is for it to happen one more time, and Villanova is certainly not known for their defense. But even so, Michigan doesn’t want to enter a shootout with the Wildcats.
A Team That Just Won’t Stay Down
In Michigan, Villanova is playing the most mentally tough team left in the field. A team that has taken punches to the mouth and just keep getting up. They’ve won games on answered Hail Mary prayers. They’ve won games with lights out shooting. They’ve won gritty and low scoring, grind it out games. For two months, Michigan has been unable to lose. The Wolverines have done it with a group of guys, rag tag and mostly unwanted, and that is what makes them so dangerous. A German unicorn that no other teams seriously scouted and no recruiting service had on their radar leads the way. A 2 star recruit that was only recruited by mid-tier programs (Delaware/VCU/Harvard) outside of Michigan is their senior leader. An athletic but unrefined wing who wasn’t good enough to get minutes on a “traditional blueblood” like Kentucky was their savior in the Elite 8. A barely 6 foot pitbull from blue collar America is their point guard. A DIII transfer from New England is their 6th man sharpshooter. And a kid with braces who knows no fear is their Mr. Big Shot.
Michigan is not a team with elite NBA-ready talent. But they play the right way. For a clean and respected coach who has another shot at the national title that would make him an immortal legend in the college coaching pantheon. John Beilein himself embodies this team. A guy who didn’t make it to Power 5 basketball until he was almost 50 and who coached obscure lower level colleges in Western New York for nearly two decades. Plain and traditional yet funny and lovable, Beilein is the coach that everyone wants to see get a national title before he retires. That day could come today.
I, as a fan, will mostly be at peace with the way tonight goes, however it may unfold. It will either be the most unlikely of champions or a team that simply grossly exceeded expectations and ran into an all-time great opponent. This is a game that the vast majority of talking heads don’t think Michigan has a shot to win. And that fact is what makes it a scenario I am fine with. Either way, I will be proud of this squad.
Throughout the year, we, as a fanbase, have moved the goalposts on this team frequently. After Maui in November, a successful season was making the NCAA tournament. A successful year at that point hinged more on the development of young players. Then success became winning a tourney game. Then it became making the sweet 16. And then after the wipeout of the first weekend, it became making the Final Four. Then after the wipeout of the sweet 16 in the South Region, it became making the National Championship Game. And here we are. The goalposts cannot be moved any farther, for Michigan is the heavy underdog. They have nothing to lose, a team that has so far surpassed anyone’s wildest dreams back in the fall. This has been John Beilein’s greatest coaching job, no question, and it sets Michigan up to be a behemoth for several years to come. Tonight would simply be the icing on the cake.
I’m so compelled to pick Villanova because I’ve felt they were the best team in this tournament for awhile and they were my championship pick before the tourney. And they probably are! But there’s just something about these Wolverines that makes it so I can’t make a prediction. They are just not the type of team you can pick against. Not after they went into Breslin Center in January and beat Michigan State by double digits. Not after they’ve won 14 straight games to reach this point. Not after they won 4 games in 4 days to win the Big Ten Tournament. Not after they accured a Team of Destiny feel following the Poole shot versus Houston. There is just something about this team. Maybe that luck will run out tonight, maybe it won’t, but making a prediction is foolish. We live in a world that is so often based around attempting to predict the future. How about, for once, we sit back and let it all happen? And hey, maybe in a tournament featuring so many upsets, another titanic one will hit, one last time.
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