The set up for this Final Four on Saturday was seemingly perfect, with a compelling Cinderella in a "David vs Goliath" type matchup in the opener and a battle of blue bloods in the nightcap — Loyola of Illinois versus Michigan and Villanova versus Kansas. What we got in actuality on Saturday was a lot less interesting than the way it all looked on paper.
Michigan, behind a 17-2 run early in the second half, squeezed the basketball life out of Loyola, and the Legend of Sister Jean, Loyola's 98 year old chaplain, ended in a 69-57 loss to the Wolverines. Then, in the second semifinal game, a battle of two No. 1 seeds, we were "treated" to what essentially was a glorified two-hour scrimmage, as Villanova jumped out 22-4 on Kansas, and never looked back. The Wildcats made 18 three pointers in the game, and sent a message that we may be looking at what amounts to a dynasty in this age of the one-and-done NCAA superstar.
Forget about Virginia as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament (we saw how THAT worked out), Villanova has been the best team in these brackets since the tournament tipped off three weeks ago, and arguably the best team in the country since about the middle of the season. In this tournament, the Wildcats have yet to play a game that's finished with a single digit margin of victory.
Meanwhile, Michigan is a Jordan Poole three point buzzer beater against Houston away from being a second round afterthought. Since that close shave, Michigan has been galvanized, blowing out Texas A&M by 27, before grinding out a 58-54 win over Florida State to get to the semifinal on Saturday. This all builds off a run to a Big Ten tournament title and a winning streak that goes back to February 6.
So, here we are — the modern day college basketball juggernaut versus the hottest team in the country. What are the keys to tonight's game?
4. Pace of play
The one Villanova game in this tournament that probably scared the hell out of the remainder of the tournament field (more than a normal Villanova game) was the Texas Tech game in the Elite Eight, in which Tech tried to slow the game down, turn it into a street fight, and forced Villanova into sub-20 percent shooting from three point range — and the Wildcats still won by double digits. Villanova prefers to play fast, but they can play slow, too. Michigan plays one of the slowest paces in the country, and they will try to shorten this game by milking the shot clock as much as possible. Of course, the easiest way to slow down Villanova is to make shots. More on that in a second.
3. Michigan perimeter defense
If I had to pick a college basketball coach to win one "my life depends on it" game for me, Michigan's John Beilein is pretty high up the list of names I would consider. I think he is a top five head coach in all of college basketball. The fact of the matter is that tonight, he may very well be dealing with an animal, Villanova's offense, that can't be schemed into a bad game. They may just have to hope that the "Texas Tech game" version of the Wildcats (4 of 24 from the field) shows up, and not the "Kansas game" version (making shots from everywhere, 13 three pointers in the first half alone). I'll be interested to see how Beilein plays this. Kansas threw some zone at Villanova and got buried. West Virginia tried some full court press, and it seemed to work okay. Beilein will have something up his sleeve, as this has been an uncharacteristically excellent Michigan squad at the defensive end.
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2. Moritz Wagner
The one Wolverines player who MUST have a great game in order for the Wolverines to pull off the upset is Wagner, the 6-foot-11 unicorn who can impact the game from so many areas of the floor. In the first half of the semifinal game against Loyola, Wagner wasn't silent, but he wasn't imposing his will. Starting with his three pointer that finally tied the game in the second half, completing a double digit Wolverine comeback, Wagner was the man. There are so many varied skills in Wagner's game — high pick and roll, pick and pop, catch and shoot, points in the paint — he needs to bring the same game he brought in the semifinal (24 points, 15 rebounds, joining only Larry Bird and Akeem Olajuwon as the only players to go 20-15 in a national semifinal game)to Monday night to give Michigan any chance of pulling off the upset.
1. Jalen Brunson
If there's one player who gives me the confidence to say "Villanova just isn't losing this game," it's Brunson, who is the absolute perfect college point guard. I have no idea what his NBA career is going to look like (I've seen him mock drafted anywhere from late first round to middle of the second round), probably very average (at best), but in college, Brunson's ability to control tempo, knock down open shots, and even back down less stout defenders in the post all make him the model collegiate point guard. At the end of the day, I just don't think Brunson allows Villanova to lose this game tonight.
SPREAD: Villanova -6.5
PREDICTION: Villanova 78, Michigan 68
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.