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Michigan’s Defense Is Great, but Will It Be Enough to Stop Villanova?

The Wolverines’ grind-it-out style could be the perfect foil for the Wildcats’ vaunted attack

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It took a career performance from Moritz Wagner to drag Michigan past Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four. Now, after sending Cinderella home early, the Wolverines find themselves with a matchup against the country’s most dominant team with college basketball’s ultimate prize on the line for the second time in six years. In 2013, it was Louisville—the tournament’s top seed—that kept Michigan from hanging its first championship banner since 1989. That group of Cardinals had the best defense in the country and the third best since 2002 (the earliest year that KenPom data is available). On Monday night, the Wolverines will have to go through another historic unit with the national title on the line.

Villanova has ripped through nearly every foe it has played this season, riding a band of shooters and a top-level defense to 35 wins. Now, the Wildcats are just 40 minutes from their second national title in three years. From the NCAA tournament’s opening tip, no team has been more dominant. The Wildcats have won each of their games in the Dance by double digits and have had an average margin of victory of 18 points, thanks in large part to their quick play and lights-out shooting.

Last season, Villanova was one of the slowest teams in the country, ranking 324th in Adjusted Tempo. But this year, with game changers like projected lottery pick Mikal Bridges and AP national player of the year Jalen Brunson, Villanova is playing faster than any Jay Wright team has since 2010. And it’s paying off. The Wildcats enter Monday’s national championship with the second most efficient offense on record and a fighting chance to be remembered as the most explosive unit in the history of the sport. They’ve scored 85 or more points in double the number of games in which they haven’t, and just two days ago set the NCAA record for the most 3-pointers made in one season. The Wildcats are as close to a perfect college offense as the sport may ever see. And Michigan might be able to lock them down.

Against Texas Tech in the Elite Eight, Villanova looked more vulnerable than it had in nearly a month. The Red Raiders entered that game ranked third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and moved the ball slower than almost any other team the Wildcats had played all season. Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard had clearly instructed his team to turn the game into a rock fight, and up until the last four minutes of play, when the Wildcats began to pull away, that’s exactly what fans got.

The Red Raiders’ suffocating defense and glacial pace of play kept them in the game for longer than expected. Tech managed to hold Villanova to just 71 points on a season-low 33.3 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent from deep. But in the end, Texas Tech’s offense—ranked 51st nationally—couldn’t find the bottom of the twine often enough to pull off an upset. Although their championship bid ended before they reached San Antonio, the Red Raiders gave opposing teams a blueprint for victory against the sport’s most dynamic offense.

That’s good news for the Wolverines. Michigan enters the season’s final showdown as the third-best defensive team in the country and plays at the 28th slowest pace. Only two teams Villanova has faced all year—Northern Iowa and no. 16 seed and first-round opponent Radford—have moved more slowly than the Wolverines do, and neither had close to the offensive firepower of the maize and blue. Michigan’s game plan, much like that of the other slow-paced units in the sport, relies on a simple bet: No team can score as efficiently as the Wolverines can, and by limiting possessions, their opponents won’t have enough chances to make up a deficit. Most nights, the gamble pays off. Like other notable devotees of the strategy—Virginia, Cincinnati, and Syracuse—Michigan has bullied its way past more talented opponents thanks to smart play and consistent scoring. And though their peers exhibited the flaws in the system during their postseason losses, the scheme has put the Wolverines in a position to knock off the sport’s most dominant team.

Against Loyola-Chicago, Michigan effectively limited the Ramblers to just 57 points on 43.1 percent shooting. Coming into that game, the 11th-seeded Cinderellas were shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc. Against the Wolverines, they connected just once on 10 tries. In all but one of its games this tournament, Michigan has managed to bully past its opponent despite shooting poorly from deep (the one exception being their 99-72 rout of Texas A&M in the Sweet 16). Michigan’s victories have come thanks in large part to its ability to hold opponents below its own miserable shooting numbers. Michigan shot just 45 percent from the field in its opening round; Montana shot 32 percent. The Wolverines hit 36 percent of their field goals in its next game; Houston made 37 percent and only lost after Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beating heave found the bottom of the net. And in the Elite Eight, the maize and blue shot just 39 percent overall. As for their opponents, Florida State? You guessed it: 32 percent and a trip back to campus.

Over the years, John Beilein’s Michigan teams have found success using a unique 1-3-1 zone defense that encourages opponents to launch more 3s. But as college players have become more adept at shooting from deep, Beilein has had to adapt. This season, for the first time in recent memory, Beilein’s Wolverines are playing mostly man defense, and the results speak for themselves. This Michigan squad is playing the best defense of any since at least 2002 and are defending the deep ball better than they have in any season since 2014. Though Wagner isn’t an imposing rim protector, his size (6-foot-11, 231 pounds) makes him a tough beat for most big men, and the Wolverines’ cabal of athletic guards and wings can impose their will on even the toughest of offenses. If Michigan can keep the Wildcats from pushing the pace on the fast break and continue locking down shooters on the wings, they could get the chance to cut down the nets. But playing an uglier game might not be enough.

The last thing the Wolverines want is for this game to turn into a free throw shooting contest. Villanova sinks 77.9 percent of its attempts from the stripe, good for 10th in the nation. Michigan, on the other hand, makes just 66.1 percent, coming in at 324th. Only three of the 10 Michigan players that might see action on Monday night shoot above 70 percent from the line, and only two of them—Duncan Robinson (89.1) and Poole (82.4) break 80 percent. That’s all to say that even if Michigan executes its game plan perfectly—if Bridges and Brunson and Omari Spellman all go cold from the outside, if the Wildcats are unable to run on the fast break, and if the limited number of possessions keeps scoring low—the Wolverines’ failings at the free throw line could seal their fate.

Against Villanova, perfection is a prerequisite for victory. Anything less will mean another loss in a title game for a program that, NCAA sanctions be damned, has fallen in five of them. But on Monday night, if the Wolverines can deliver the lockdown defense they’ve exhibited so far this postseason, they could finish the season as something that 350 other teams could not: as champions.