2017-18 National Championship Preview

(1) Villanova v. (3) Michigan

- Ky McKeon

Initial Thoughts: Harry, we’ve reached the top! 

After a season full of FBI controversy, unexpected Power 6 darlings, star player injuries, and Rambler Final Fours, 2017-18 culminates in a championship game that promises to entertain.

Villanova comes into this one after dispatching Kansas in convincing fashion, setting the NCAA Tournament record for most threes made in a Final Four contest (18) along the way. The Cats have covered every single game of this year’s Big Dance, a trend that bodes favorably from a historical standpoint – three of the last five champions have gone 6-0 against the spread in the NCAA Tournament. Nova has won its last five games by an average of 17.8 points, and hasn’t had one of those tilts come within double digits.

Michigan played midnight to Loyola’s Cinderella, as John Beilein’s squad overcame an eight-point second half deficit to send the 11-seeded Ramblers packing. The game was representative of the type of play we’ve seen all Tourney from the Wolverines (save the Texas A&M stomping) – an overall inefficient offensive display combined with lock down defense on the other end.

Villanova on Offense: Villanova’s offense this season has been historically great. Per KenPom, the Cats’ adjusted offensive efficiency is 127.6, which is 4.9 points higher than the second best offense in the country, Purdue. That gap between first and second is as large as the gap between 2nd and 16th; only 2015 Wisconsin has had a higher adjusted offensive rating in the KenPom era, which dates back to 2002.

Comparing college styles to NBA styles is cliché and overdone, but I’m going to do it anyway. The Nova offense this season is reminiscent of the peak mid-2000 Spurs teams that emphasized ball movement and the extra pass, combined with the overarching Warriors / Rockets goal of shooting a ton of high-percentage three-pointers. As mentioned above, Villanova hit a ridiculous 18 threes against Kansas on Saturday, a Final Four record, and have hit 66 for the entire Tournament, another record. Villanova is not only a high-volume three-point shooting team, it’s also a highly accurate one - the Cats have continued their regular season pinpoint accuracy from deep, shooting 42.3% from the Land of Plenty in the Big Dance.

Nova is so successful from deep because of the clean looks it gets, a result of elite floor spacing, unselfishness, and blow-by threats. Jay Wright’s starting five features a deep threat at every single position; center Omari Spellman even leads the team in three-point percentage at 43.9%. The Cats’ offense usually maintains five guys spread on the perimeter and uses crisp ball movement and penetration to make the defense shift and help off would-be shooters. This set-up allows for several actions to kick-off an offensive possession; you’ll see plenty of Spellman pick-n-pop or pick-n-roll ball screens, mover-blocker action with Spellman and Eric Paschall serving as walls for Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges to curl or fade off, and flat sets that allow Jalen Brunson to create.

Here’s Nova’s offense in a microcosm:

That’s gorgeous basketball. Paschall sets a standard ball screen for the ball handler, Bridges, and dives hard to the cup. Bridges, recognizing the over-hedge by De Sousa, hits Paschall on the roll. Instead of rising into a tough shot under the hoop, Paschall gathers himself and finds his teammate, Collin Gillepsie, in the corner for a high-percentage look. Like most Nova possessions, the ball does not stall in one player’s hands – every action is deliberate and made with purpose. *Swoon*

Villanova’s offense is very much a team-based attack, but that doesn’t mean it lacks the star power to score in one-on-one sets. Brunson, the National Player of the Year, has an uncanny knack for creating rifts in opposing defenses and can score on his defender in a myriad of ways.

Exhibit A: “I pull up in your face”

Exhibit B: “I see everything”

Exhibit C: “I bully you, little kid”

The third clip is what separates Brunson from an average NCAA point guard – his ability to beat smaller guards in the post. Michigan’s Zavier Simpson has no chance defending him in the paint, which means a guy like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman or Charles Matthews will be forced into the assignment. If Simpson does guard Brunson, his superb swiping ability will be negated by Brunson’s caretaking of the basketball.

Michigan’s defense is elite, and it’s the primary reason the Wolverines find themselves in the National Championship. Only Texas A&M has scored higher than 0.97ppp on Michigan this Tourney, a function of outstanding help defense and disciplined positioning. Perhaps the best case for the Wolverines staying tight in this one, is their ability to take away the three-pointer. Beilein's squad ranks 5th in the country in three-point attempt rate (i.e. they don't allow teams to take a lot of threes), an enormous factor against the trey-happy Cats.

One matchup to watch is Isaiah Livers / Duncan Robinson vs. Eric Paschall. Paschall destroyed Kansas and Texas Tech on the offensive glass, and with Wagner focused on Spellman, the 6’7” junior will have plenty of chances to rack up second chance points against lesser boarders in Livers and Robinson.

Michigan on Offense: Similar to Villanova, the Wolverines employ a spaced-out attack on offense featuring four or five guys on the floor at all times that can shoot from the outside. Moe Wagner is the catalyst of the offense, a 6’11” center that hovers around the top of the key and sets ball screens or catches and faces to start possessions. As my fellow Weaver, Matt, pointed out in his Michigan / Loyola preview, Wagner loves the pick-n-pop and will look to score off this action nearly every time down the floor. The “Big Berlin” was brutal against Florida State, but he turned in a career games against the Ramblers, going 3/7 from deep to help his 24 overall points.

Wagner finds most of his deep ball opportunities from the top of the key, but he’s skilled enough to create his own shot and pull one of these against a slow-footed defender:

Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig didn’t stand a chance against Wagner on the perimeter, and when Loyola went small with Aundre Jackson at the five, Wagner ate the Ramblers up on the offensive glass and in the paint. Spellman or Paschall is going to be a tough matchup for Wagner. Both Nova bigs are quick enough to close out on the arc without being susceptible to a blow-by, and both have the girth to hold their own on the block and on the boards.

Beilein’s lineup combinations will be something to watch in this one, and each group brings a slightly different wrinkle to the offense. When Wagner starts with Livers, Michigan stays true to its five-out spaced attack. When 7’1” bruiser Jon Teske spells Wagner, the Wolverines go with a more traditional 4-out, 1-in look with the sophomore center planted on the block. Beilein will also mix in a lineup with Jordan Poole and Duncan Robinson on the floor at the same time. Robinson slides into the four spot, while Wagner shifts from his top-of-the-key perch to a more roaming-the-paint position. Beilein sets Poole and Robinson in opposite corners and lets his dynamic guards, Charles Matthews, Zavier Simpson, and MAAR break down defenders off the dribble with threats to kick for open threes.

Michigan’s offense has been good-to-great all year, but this Tournament has been a different story. Only once have the Wolverines scored over 1.00ppp this Tourney, and if you take away their performance against the Aggies, the Wolverines are shooting 24/96 from outside (a dismal 25%). Beilein has been heavily reliant on sophomore Charles Matthews to create something on the offensive end, usually via the drive as the 6’6” wing is often far more athletic than his defensive counterpart:

And again...

Of course, Matthews has never gone up against a guy we like to call “The Octopus” a.k.a. Mikal Bridges. The rangy 6’7” Bridges is a perfect matchup against the athletic Matthews. Matthews won’t overpower him and Bridges’s length will allow him the ability to recover even if Matthews gets a step on him.

Perhaps the biggest conundrum facing Beilein and the Wolverines on offense will be what to do at the point guard spot. Simpson has been serviceable all year, but he pooped the bed against Loyola, turning the ball over 4 times and going 0/3 from the field forcing Beilein to bring in former castoff Jaaron Simmons into the mix. Villanova isn’t actively looking to turn opponents over, but it has the defenders to cause trouble for a young point guard with ball security issues. Jay Wright, being the masterful strategist that he is, will likely look to exploit this weakness.

Key Factor(s): Stopping the catalysts.

For Michigan, who stops Jalen Brunson? Presumably a guy like MAAR or Matthews has the athletic chops and strength to bother Brunson and keep him at bay, but will that focus allow for easy opportunities off drive-and-kicks?

For Villanova, who stops Moe Wagner and Charles Matthews? Bridges should be fine on an island against Matthews, but can Spellman or Paschall hang with Wagner on the perimeter and in the post?

Final Predictions: This is a heavyweight bout between two master game planners in Jay Wright and John Beilein. Part of what makes both teams so good is their ability to adjust their style to opposing teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Just like the Nova / KU game, this one should be a fun game free from constant whistles, but one that leans to the slower side due to the Wolverines’ focus on controlling the clock.

Villanova has been arguably the best team all year and without a doubt the best team in the Tournament. I think they continue their dominance on Monday night on their way to their second National Championship under Jay Wright.

SU Pick: Villanova
ATS Pick: Villanova -6.5
O/U Pick: Over 145