Column: Lanthorn writer's guide to the 2018 National Championship game
Sadly, the greatest month in all of sports has come to a close.
This March has been one of the maddest in recent memory, featuring many buzzer beaters; the one overall seed getting blown out by 16-seed UMBC; and 11-seed Loyola-Chicago making a shocking run to the Final Four with phenomenal ball movement, excellent shooting and possibly a little divine help from above.
Fans should be very excited for this title game, as we’ll get to witness one of the best offenses in college basketball history take on one of the better defensive teams in recent memory. This game will feature so many talented players, more than a few future NBA players and two future hall-of-fame coaches in Jay Wright and John Beilein.
Let’s take a minute to preview what each team does well, look into a few key head-to-head matchups and predict the score for this epic battle.
Why Villanova can win the National Championship
I’m not exaggerating when I say this may be one of the best offenses college basketball has ever seen. They truly are a juggernaut on the offensive end because all five guys on the floor are shooting threats from everywhere on the floor.
Look no further than the game on Saturday, March 31, to see how good this Villanova offense can truly be. They put up 95 points against fellow 1-seed Kansas, setting a Final Four record by making 18 of their 40 threes, including 13 in the first 17 minutes of action.
How can you not be afraid of a team that heats up like that so fast and so quickly? Every player in the Wildcat rotation makes 36 percent or more of their deep balls, including three players who shoot over 40 percent from beyond the arc. If they make three or four 3-pointers before the second TV timeout on Monday, April 2, it could be a long night for the Wolverines.
They have been able to play at an impeccable pace all season long, as the Wildcats rank 14th in 3-point shooting percentage, second in effective field-goal percentage, third in 2-point shooting percentage and ninth in free-throw shooting percentage. Needless to say, it will be a shock if the Wildcats struggle on offense Monday Night.
In a March full of upsets and shocking finishes, Villanova has been efficient and arguably the most dominant team all season long. They have made high-quality college basketball teams look like JV high school teams, as they’ve won every tournament by 12 points or more. Who’s to say they can’t keep things rolling against an inconsistent Michigan team?
Why Michigan can win the National Championship
What separates the NCAA tournament from any other postseason in sports is that the best teams don’t always win. Sometimes the winners of the tournament are simply the hottest teams, and look no further than Ann Arbor, Michigan, to find this year’s squad with the most momentum.
This Michigan team is different than any other in recent memory in that this team really knows how to lock down on defense.
As Michigan is currently ranked as the fourth-best defense in college basketball, John Beilein has this team in the perfect mindset to succeed. A great case can be made for Zavier Simpson as the best on-ball defender in this tournament, as the team feeds off his energy and swallows teams whole once they get in the paint.
That dominant defense is the main reason for Michigan’s comeback against Loyola-Chicago on Saturday, March 31. The Wolverines contested 24 of the Ramblers' 27 second-half shots and didn’t allow Loyola-Chicago an open shot until there were fewer than five minutes left in the contest.
The success on the defensive end allows Michigan a chance to heat up on the offensive end. This squad can heat up in a hurry, as Seniors Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman and Duncan Robinson can both lead the offense and light it up from deep, allowing Michigan a chance to succeed if a shootout inevitably breaks out on Monday.
Even though the Wolverines have had a historically easy path to this National Championship game, they are heating up at the right time and have yet to play their best brand of basketball in this tournament. If this defense shows up again and Michigan reaches their full potential on offense, they will be a force to be reckoned with against a Villanova that relies a little too heavily on the three ball.
Key matchups to watch: Omari Spellman vs. Mo Wagner, Mikal Bridges vs. Charles Matthews
As good as both these two teams are, this game could simply come down to how these four players play.
Both Villanova and Michigan feature versatile big men who play key roles in their respective offenses. Freshmen Omari Spellman has proved he can battle with anyone, as his inside-out game provides a unique wrinkle in this dominant offensive scheme.
Wagner isn’t afraid to step back and hit the three, either. The human embodiment of a spark plug has been the leading scorer for the Wolverines all season long, and his dominant 24-point double-double in the semifinal puts him in an elite company of players when it comes to dominance in the Final
Four (Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird are the only other players to put up a 20-point double-double in the Final Four). Look to see the future first-round pick put on another show Monday night.
The other matchup to watch in the game sits in the small forwards. Charles Matthews has been a consistent scorer for the Wolverines all tournament long. The Kentucky transfer was the Most Outstanding Player in the West Region and will be looking to get more buckets in the final.
But if there is any man who can stop him, it’s Villanova’s Mikal Bridges. The future lottery pick has incredible length and quick feet, allowing him to guard any position on the court. He has the ability to shut down Matthews in this game and thereby stall Michigan’s offense completely.
As I’ve previously stated in this paper, I am a huge Michigan fan. I truly believe this is a team of destiny, and I’ve loved watching them all year wrong. But, if I’m being honest, this team is really inconsistent. They were down in the first half against 14-seeded Montana. It took an incredible buzzer beater to beat Houston. And until there were 15 minutes left in Saturday night’s game, it looked like they were going to get blown out by Sister Jean’s squad.
They rarely ever start out games well, and they haven’t had a consistent offensive flow all tournament long. Look for AP player of the year and basketball quarterback Jalen Brunson to lead this offense to yet another great display of offensive firepower. Michigan will put up a good fight, but Villanova will likely cap off a historically dominant tournament run with another fantastic performance. As much as it pains me to say it, I’ll predict Villanova to win 84-78 in yet another epic championship game.