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Getting to know Michigan’s Sweet Sixteen opponent: Villanova

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Beating the Wildcats is a tall task.

Saint Joseph’s v Villanova Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The 2021-22 Michigan Wolverines’ men’s basketball team actually managed to put together two quality performances in a row, upsetting 6 seed Colorado State and 3 seed Tennessee in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament to earn a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.

Life doesn’t get any easier for the Wolverines in the next round, as the only thing standing between them and the Elite Eight are the 2-seeded Villanova Wildcats.

Michigan will try to avenge its 2018 National Championship game loss on Thursday, with that game tipping off at 7:29 p.m. on TBS. Vegas is expecting this to be a close game, as the Wolverines have opened as 4.5-point underdogs according to DraftKings.

Let’s break down how Villanova got to this point and a few Wildcats Michigan will need to slow down if it wants to play spoiler for the third game in a row.

How Villanova got here

The Wildcats finished second in the Big East, beating conference champ Providence twice and winning the conference tournament to go into March Madness with a bit of momentum.

As is usually the case with Jay Wright’s teams, Villanova is incredibly efficient on offense and rarely miss freebies, with the Wildcats making a nation-high 82.6% of their chances from the free-throw line.

The Wildcats have quite a bit of momentum, winning their last seven games, including their games with Delaware (80-60) and Ohio State (71-61).

This Villanova squad isn’t as good defensively as the 2016 or 2018 title squads, but they are efficiently guarding the three-point line with opponents shooting 26.6% from deep on their current win streak.

The Wildcats have done an excellent job making their contested threes as of late. Per ESPN Stats and Info, Villanova made 36% of their contested threes in the tournament, which is their top mark since the 2018 national title run.

This Villanova squad should remind Michigan fans of John Beilien’s squads; they’re ultra efficient, don’t make a ton of mistakes and capitalize from the free-throw line to win close games.

Keep an eye out for…

Senior guard Collin Gillespie

Maize n Brew’s Dan Plocher will cover the Players to Watch later this week, but I want to highlight a few of them very quickly.

Two players in this Sweet Sixteen matchup actually played in that 2018 title game: Michigan’s Eli Brooks and Villanova’s Collin Gillespie.

Villanova’s leader in the backcourt is also leading the team in scoring, averaging 16.0 points per game this season to go along with 3.4 assists per game.

Four of the top six players in Villanova’s rotation shoot at least 83% from the stripe and Gillespie is the best of them all, making 90.2% of his free throws, a mark that’s 12th best in the nation.

On the offensive end, the senior guard is persistent as hell. He can finish with both hands around the rim, knock down the three ball at a 41.6% success rate and is really good with his back to the basket, using a quick move to get around his defender or finding the open man for three.

For Michigan to have any chance of pulling this off, they need to slow down Gillespie. Hopefully DeVante’ Jones and Frankie Collins can stay physical with him and make him work for every offensive opportunity he gets.

Jermaine Samuels & Eric Dixon

Samuels and Dixon handle most of the big man duties for Villanova, as the forwards have combined to average 20 points and 12.7 boards per game while helping the Wildcats survive in the paint.

One of the few weaknesses for Villanova is it is a bit undersized, as a 6-foot-7 Samuels and a 6-foot-9 Dixon may have issues containing All-American center Hunter Dickinson on the block.

This game will come down to how well Samuels and Dixon can guard Dickinson. If they can manage to make him a non-factor in this one, the Wolverines could be at risk of getting blown out.

The Wildcats struggled to handle size in their loss to Purdue earlier this season, with Zach Edey and Trevion Williams combining to score 30 points and grab 10 rebounds in a November victory. Michigan should be watching tape from that matchup for a potential blueprint on beating the Wildcats. They aren’t as talented as Purdue and aren’t nearly as efficient as Villanova, but if the Wolverines feed Dickinson and can limit the excellent guard play of the Wildcats, they just might be dancing a little longer.