I’ll cut right to the chase: The outlook of Monday night’s national title game does not look good for Michigan. On Saturday, the Wolverines gutted out an ugly 69-57 win over Loyola-Chicago, while Villanova reaffirmed my belief that making shots is a very good college basketball strategy in a 95-79 rout of Kansas. If the same version of the Wildcats that was so on fire against the Jayhawks shows up to play the same version of Michigan that could hardly run offense in the first half against Loyola-Chicago, Villanova will beat the Wolverines by approximately a million. As great as Michigan’s defense has been this season, it has never seen an offense like Nova’s, mostly because college basketball as a whole has never seen anything quite like it. We can spend the lead-up to the game hashing out individual matchups to watch (Charles Matthews vs. Mikal Bridges! Moritz Wagner vs. Omari Spellman!), discussing how the Michigan offense might be able to exploit the Villanova defense, and theorizing about various lineup changes that could potentially be made. But the only thing that really matters is to what extent Villanova’s offense is clicking. Because if the Cats are hot from deep, there isn’t a damn thing any opposing team in the country can do to stop them.
Of course, the beauty of college basketball—and especially of the NCAA tournament—is that it’s impossible to be certain of anything. It would not take a miracle in San Antonio for Michigan to win its first national title since 1989. In addition to playing excellent defense, the Wolverines have been prone to getting hot from 3-point range from time to time. Michigan will head into its clash against Villanova embracing the same approach that Texas Tech did in the Elite Eight, hoping to slow the game down and turn it into an ugly, physical affair. If the Wolverines can do that and sprinkle in some timely outside shooting, an upset victory is entirely on the table.
The only thing that’s clear is a handful of legacies will never be the same after Monday night. Here is what’s at stake for 11 of the major players, coaches, and entities involved.
1. Villanova coach Jay Wright: It’s incredible to think that in 2015 Wright was considered a March Madness choker who was better known for wearing fancy suits and sitting in the CBS studio during the second week of the NCAA tournament than for winning championships. (At the time, he was also considered a worse head coach than Kevin Ollie.) Three years later, Wright is on the verge of bringing Villanova its second national championship in the past three seasons and joining Mike Krzyzewski as the only active men’s college basketball coach to win two titles in a three-year span. (Side note: Please come back to college basketball, Billy Donovan!) It already feels like history is going to remember Wright as the godfather of small ball at the college level (even if that isn’t exactly true), so I can only imagine how much his reputation as a genius would grow if Villanova is crowned national champion yet again. If nothing else, he would widely be hailed as the best coach in the game today, which is wild given that Wright and his program were a punch line not too long ago.
2. Michigan coach John Beilein: Beilein has won almost 550 career games to go along with two Big Ten regular-season championships and two Big Ten tournament championships, and he’s been to the Final Four twice in the past seven seasons. Anyone with half a brain will tell you that Beilein’s standing in the college basketball community should not hinge on Monday night’s result. If the Wolverines lose by 50 points, he will still be considered a phenomenal coach who is among the best at developing players that the sport has ever seen. But if Michigan becomes just the third team since 1978 to win a national championship with zero McDonald’s All Americans (and zero five-star recruits, for that matter), the Hall of Fame might as well start making arrangements now.
3. The Big Ten: With Michigan’s inclusion in the 2018 national title game, a Big Ten school has now made the national championship seven times since Michigan State won it all in 2000: Indiana in 2002, Illinois in 2005, Ohio State in 2007, Michigan State in 2009, Michigan in 2013, Wisconsin in 2015, and Michigan again now. Heading into Monday night, the conference has won a grand total of zero of those title games. Conference pride makes no sense, and anybody who cheers for a rival is a simple-minded idiot who deserves ridicule … but I also wouldn’t be upset if this streak finally got snapped.
4. Michigan forward Moritz Wagner: The Wolverines’ national title hopes likely will come down to whether Wagner can pull some magic out of his ass in his matchup with Omari Spellman, which is probably an unfair amount of pressure to place on one player. The good news for Michigan is Wagner has the goods to rise to the occasion, as evidenced most recently by his dominant 24-point, 15-rebound performance in Saturday’s win over Loyola-Chicago. (If Wagner has another game like that and leads the Wolverines to a title, start building his statue on campus IMMEDIATELY.) The bad news is that even if Wagner does deliver the magic, there are about a thousand scenarios in which it still won’t be enough for Michigan to win.
5. Villanova big Omari Spellman: Spellman has been a revelation for a Wildcats team that might be set to play for its third national championship in a row had he not been ruled ineligible last season. (A decision that was total bullshit, by the way.) The 6-foot-9 245-pounder’s ability to stretch the floor while also possessing traditional big-man skills is a huge reason this Villanova group has become virtually unguardable. His matchup with Wagner is going to be fascinating in the sense that it feels like both guys could struggle to guard one another, meaning that Spellman has a huge opportunity to make a statement. I’m not an NBA draft aficionado by any stretch, but if Spellman gets the better of Wagner on college basketball’s biggest stage and leads his team to a title, I have to think that he’d leave for the NBA and have a serious case to become a first-round pick.
6. Michigan wing Charles Matthews: Speaking of soaring draft stocks, the West region’s Most Outstanding Player and Kentucky transfer has very much looked the part of an NBA player during this NCAA tournament, averaging 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds through five games. As of three weeks ago, I was certain that Matthews would return to Ann Arbor next season, if for no other reason than I couldn’t imagine a world in which a 6-foot-6 wing who shoots 57 percent from the free throw line and 32 percent from beyond the arc could make it to the league. But if Matthews continues on his recent trajectory and helps lift Michigan to a national championship, I’m fairly confident that he will declare for the draft. I’m also fairly confident that it would prove to be a smart decision.
7. Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson: The 2018 AP national player of the year is looking to become just the second Naismith Award winner in the past 25 seasons to win a national championship, with Anthony Davis in 2012 being the other. If I’m being honest, bits of trivia like that are pretty much all that remain at stake for Brunson. He has already won a national championship in his career, was just named NPOY, and has been to two Final Fours. The Villanova star is a legend who has done everything there is to do in college basketball, regardless of what happens on Monday night.
8. Villanova forward Mikal Bridges: Bridges is the best player on a team that also features the national player of the year, a point I’ve made 1,000 times already this season and will continue to make until my dying day. So I’m going to be selfish here and say that I don’t care about what’s at stake for Bridges on an individual level. What really matters is that I could desperately use a win after being wrong about so many things this season (RIP, Virginia). If Bridges doesn’t have a big game on Monday night, I may just crawl into a hole and cry until the 2018-19 campaign rolls around.
9. Villanova guard Phil Booth: Kris Jenkins is the obvious hero from the Wildcats’ 2015-16 national title team, but he wouldn’t have ever had the chance to hit the biggest shot in men’s college basketball history had Booth not first played out of his mind in that game, scoring 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 25 minutes off the bench. Also, Booth missed seven games this season with a broken hand, and one was Villanova’s stunning 79-75 home loss to St. John’s. Since he returned from that injury, the Cats have lost only once. I’m not saying that Booth is responsible for all of Villanova’s success in the past few years, but I also don’t think everything that’s been noted in this paragraph is a coincidence. On Monday night, he’ll have an opportunity to show just how important he’s been to his program’s success.
10. The “defense wins championships” and “jump-shooting teams can’t win titles” mantras: As someone who’s long subscribed to both of these philosophies, I’ve admittedly felt like a massive idiot watching this year’s tournament unfold. That feeling will only intensify if the most 3-point-reliant team of all time does what’s expected, defies conventional wisdom, and beats a defensive-minded team to take home the national title.
11. The 2017-18 college basketball season: This was the season of chaos. It was the season of top-five teams falling out of the top 25 and previously dormant programs like Texas Tech and Auburn soaring to unprecedented heights. It was the season of surprises and upsets even before the NCAA tournament started, and then the surprises and upsets kicked into overdrive with the likes of UMBC and Loyola-Chicago. This very much felt like a year when a team would come out of left field to win the whole damn thing, and in a sense Michigan still makes that possible.
The more likely scenario, though, is that the feeling that anyone could win this season’s national championship was always a mirage. The more likely scenario is that a goliath was standing right in front of our faces this whole time, and that the national player of the year (who isn’t even the best player on his own team!!!) and one of the greatest offenses in college basketball history was always destined to cut down the nets in San Antonio.
At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see.