Preseason polls and recent history (five straight!!) say this is nothing unexpected; four months of the eye test say this is a minor miracle. Either way, the Michigan Wolverines are back in the Sweet 16 — as is becoming tradition — while Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Illinois all sit at home. This has been quite the season, but somehow the team is right where it should be in March.
Michigan’s rough regular season means its NCAA Tournament path is not going to be easy. After taking down a pre-tournament top-five Kenpom squad in Tennessee, the Wolverines now draw No. 2 seed Villanova in a rematch of the 2018 National Championship Game, coincidentally also played in San Antonio.
The Wildcats are as quality as always, offering a very efficient offense and a good enough defense. This is no team to overlook, though they present a much different type of challenge than the Vols. In simplest terms, this will come down to veteran experience vs. talent and potential. Michigan has an opportunity here, but it will require a much cleaner game than the two it played last week.
No. 2 Villanova Wildcats (28-7) vs. No. 11 Michigan Wolverines (19-14)
March is the time for stars to take over, and Hunter Dickinson has done just that in each of Michigan’s first two contests. The big man had 21 points, six rebounds, and four blocks against Colorado State before posting 27 points (going 3-of-5 from three), 11 rebounds, and four assists against Tennessee. This will be another chance for him to use his size to anchor the offense: Villanova does not have the bodies to keep up with him, and like the second half on Saturday, everything the Wolverines run needs to go through him.
Feeding Dickinson is obvious, but the rest of the offensive game plan will be something to watch, starting with the personnel. Caleb Houstan’s struggles have continued, and after Terrance Williams’s major impact down the stretch last weekend, one has to wonder if he should get the bulk of the minutes. Moussa Diabate should not lose his spot, but he will need to up his game, especially given Michigan’s potential advantage in the paint. This is no time for inexcusable misses at the rim, and the athletic freshman needs to find some consistency.
Villanova is led by Collin Gillespie and a veteran backcourt which takes good shots and does not turn the ball over. This is a different type of challenge than Tennessee’s extremely athletic guards, though, and perhaps is a little more manageable for Eli Brooks and DeVante Jones, should he return. Regardless, Frankie Collins proved that the spotlight is not too big for him, and his defensive effort could be a huge difference maker for the Wolverines.
The biggest key on defense is focus. Michigan must be locked in for 30 seconds every possession, as the Wildcats run a methodical offense that waits for the best opportunity. Villanova shoots better from behind the arc relative to two-point attempts and puts them up at a high rate. If the Wolverines suffer repeated breakdowns and leave shooters like Gillespie open, this is the type of game that will get out of hand quickly.
Fundamentals are key on the defensive end as well, but Michigan absolutely has to clean up its possessions. Turnovers have been killer, and little things like not grabbing loose balls, missed bunnies, and an inability to break down pressure have nearly ended this team’s postseason already. Letting mistakes add up against Villanova is not going to work, and the Wolverines cannot keep hoping to escape like this. This is a challenge for a relatively young team, but there is no excuse for not being completely engaged at this point.
The Wildcats are going to score, as seen in strong performances against Delaware (1.31 PPP) and Ohio State (1.20 PPP). Michigan needs to force Villanova to earn its baskets, starting with contesting threes and not giving up open looks. Tennessee’s shooting from deep (2-for-18) was a bit of a gift, but credit the defense for not allowing a ton of high quality shots. The other key is not fouling, which the Wolverines have done a good job avoiding so far, as Villanova is the No. 1 team in the nation from the line this season.