Against all odds, the Michigan Wolverines pierced their way through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and now find themselves in their fifth consecutive Sweet 16. Ahead of them is the No. 2 seed in the South Region, the Villanova Wildcats, in a rematch of the 2018 National Championship.
Villanova finished second in the Big East this season with a 28-7 record. They won the Big East Tournament with wins over UConn and Creighton in the final two rounds, and 15 of their last 17 contests in total.
Wildcat’s head coach Jay Wright is in the Basketball Hall of Fame for a reason. This success late in seasons is what has propelled them to become a powerhouse program. That is no different this year, as the Wildcats are on the precipice of their third Elite Eight in the last 10 years. The last two times they have gotten that far, they won the championship.
This Wildcats team is certainly capable of that. They are as deep as any team in the country and have that signature shooting ability almost every Wright-led team possesses. In the first round against Delaware, the Wildcats shot 51% from the field, 46% from deep and 92% from the free-throw line. According to ESPN, they are the only team in NCAA Tournament history with two 50/40/90 performances. The last team to accomplish that feat was in 2016 when they went on to be national champions.
How do the Wolverines keep pace or slow them down? Well, it all starts with Collin Gillespie, the leading scorer and one of the best players in the Big East.
Gillespie is one of the most efficient guards in the country. He hits 44% of his shots while also knocking down 41.6% of his three balls. Oftentimes, Gillespie will find himself scoring off the dribble and knocking down shots on the interior over smaller guards. Getting to the foul line is one of his stronger suits, drawing fouls while driving towards the rim. He’s also a solid spot-up shooter from deep.
If I’m Juwan Howard, I’m going back and watching how Shaka Smart and Marquette guarded Gillespie this season. The Golden Eagles won both of their regular season contests against Nova and held Gillespie to 9-for-28 shooting and a combined 26 points in those two games. He also was just 5-of-18 from behind the arc with six turnovers in their matchups.
Justin Moore is another huge threat to the Wolverines. He is an equally as efficient guard, scoring 15 points a game on over 40% shooting from the field. Moore is not as quality of a three-point shooter but is much more athletic than Gillespie, giving him a completely different skillset to worry about.
Moore’s mid-range game is strong, but much of his scoring comes by volume. He averages almost 13 attempts per game, the most on the team. He and Gillespie account for about half of Villanova’s points per game this season and their consistent play has made the team so dangerous.
How have teams downed the Wildcats this season? Well, they forced them to play through their bigs and focused most of their defensive efforts on the perimeter. Easier said than done.
Michigan will have a clear size advantage. The tallest players in their rotation are Jermaine Samuels, Eric Dixon and Brandon Slater who all stand around 6-foot-8. Michigan has three 6-foot-8 or taller players in their starting lineup with Caleb Houstan, Moussa Diabate and Hunter Dickinson. If the Wolverines make this a game of the frontcourt, they have a strong chance of winning this game.
Look at the teams who have knocked off the Wildcats this season: Purdue, Baylor, UCLA, Marquette and Creighton. What do they all have in common? Really strong presences in the frontcourt. Take a look at some examples of how these teams gave the Wildcats trouble:
Purdue vs. Nova (80-74)
- Zach Edey scored 21
- Purdue outrebounded Nova 38-26
- Boilermakers scored 50 points in the paint to Nova’s 29
Baylor vs. Nova (57-36)
- Villanova scored just 10 points in the paint
- Gillespie held to only six points on 2-of-7 shooting
- Wildcats’ posts went a combined 3-of-20 and scored nine points.
Creighton vs. Nova (79-59)
- Gillespie and Moore scored just 22 points on 9-of-27 shooting
- Ryan Hawkins and Ryan Kalkbrenner (Creighton’s leaders in the frontcourt) scored 27 points and tallied 20 combined rebounds in the route
- Creighton overcame 14 turnovers by shooting over 50% from the field, mostly coming from the interior.
Michigan could be next along the lines of these teams with the big men it has. This will be the time for Dickinson to shine. There should be no one on this Villanova squad capable of guarding him one-on-one. If he gets doubled, it will be on the shooters like Eli Brooks and Houstan to knock down their open looks. But the offense should be played through the Michigan big man.
An emphasis on crashing the offensive boards and stealing possessions from an extremely slow-paced Villanova squad could be what turns the tables as well. It won’t be easy for the Wolverines, but they match up well with Villanova if they can play some lockdown defense against Gillespie and Moore. DeVante’ Jones’ and Brooks' defensive efforts will be paramount to the Wolverines’ success.