SAN ANTONIO, Texas — As with everything in the Michigan men’s basketball program, John Beilein preaches a precise routine. For freshman forward Isaiah Livers, that means talking to his dad prior to every game.
So on Monday, Livers told his dad how he needed to be aggressive, how he could attempt to stifle his matchup, how he wanted to take smart shots on offense. And naturally, Livers articulated his excitement to play in the national championship game — a dream for every college basketball player but a reality for a select few.
Yet there was a sobering tone of realism in his words.
“We’ve got to play like our old self,” Livers told his dad. “We got to pick it up. We haven’t played our best basketball in a while.”
When the Wolverines took the floor in San Antonio, it’d been exactly 30 days since they won the Big Ten Tournament Championship. There, they looked nearly unbeatable with convincing victories over Michigan State and Purdue.
But Michigan would soon begin to flirt with death like a bad habit. The Wolverines were dreadfully sluggish in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Poole saved them with a miracle in the next round. A less-talented Florida State club nearly beat them in Los Angeles. Moritz Wagner needed the game of his life to knock off Loyola-Chicago.
Excluding an anomalous barrage against Texas A&M, Michigan had been shooting 3-pointers at a rate of just 25 percent during the tournament. Defense and luck — having played no team seeded higher than six until Monday — had carried the Wolverines through their rough shooting performances.
“We’ve noticed that our shooting was not to where it normally is, that was clear the last two games especially,” said freshman guard C.J. Baird.
All of this, of course, is part of basketball. No team is always going to play its best.
But Monday’s 20-point loss to Villanova was one that was coming.
The Wolverines had another dreadful shooting performance, going just 3-of-23 from beyond-the-arc. The rim was rarely kind. Their offense settled far too often.
“I couldn’t tell you (why),” Baird said. “I mean every day, those guys are raining 3s on us in practice.”
And yet, there were aspects of Michigan’s play that surprisingly underperformed.
The Wolverines’ perimeter defense had been exceptional all season long. On Monday, Yaklich’s magic number was eight — that, or less, was how many 3-pointers he told his defense it could allow.
It seemed like a realistic mark. Michigan hadn’t allowed more than eight triples in over two months.
Even after starting 1-of-9, however, the Wildcats hit 10.
“We (knew we had) to be incredibly connected defensively, the whole night,” Yaklich said. “You can’t let your guard down.”
But the Wolverines did and at the worst time.
Villanova is the definition of a blitzkrieg offense. Even when the Wildcats seem off-base, they strike before you know it. It’s what led Villanova to one of the most dominant tournament runs of all time.
That’s why defensive rebounding, a significant source of improvement this season, was so critical for Michigan. But the Wolverines allowed 12 offensive boards, killing any momentum and hope they had of coming back.
“The biggest surprise was our lack of defensive rebounding,” Yaklich said. “That was just surprising. … If you’d have said we’d give up 12 offensive rebounds tonight, I’d probably have said we’re in trouble.”
But perhaps what nobody could have expect was the performance of Donte DiVincenzo. He’s the sixth option in Villanova’s offense, averaging 13.5 points per game. He lit up Michigan for 31.
“He killed us for sure,” said redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews. “He wasn’t their main option, but he showed up on the big stage, and I got to say I respect it.”
Added Livers: “When someone’s on fire you got to deny him. I know we tried our best, but I don’t think we did what we’re capable of shutting a player down. That doesn’t happen a lot.”
What had been happening a lot, however, were Michigan’s sub-par offensive showings. And when those are combined with rebounding lapses, a career performance from DiVincenzo and a brilliant Wildcats’ team, it becomes the type of blowout you would expect to see.
This isn’t meant to underestimate the Wolverines. There’s a reason this group set a program record for wins and exceeded expectations at every step of the way.
It is to say that Villanova is a damn good team, though. And when Michigan’s shooting sputtered and underperformed elsewhere, things got predictably ugly.
Livers could sense it. Now, it’s his team’s reality.