Wolverines embrace underdog role ahead of championship matchup against Villanova

Sunday, April 1, 2018 - 3:56pm

Fifth-year senior guard Jaaron Simmons says Michigan is comfortable "getting in the mud."

Fifth-year senior guard Jaaron Simmons says Michigan is comfortable "getting in the mud." Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The Michigan men’s basketball team is playing in the NCAA Championship game against No. 1-seeded Villanova on Monday Night.

No need to go to check your glasses, you read that correctly.

The Wolverines (33-7 overall) have juggled elite defensive performances, scattered offensive spurts and a dash of luck to get to this point. But on paper, Michigan’s performance isn’t an accident — it’s been the favorite in all five tournament games its played in thus far.

But now, the Wolverines come in as the underdog, and even that’s an understatement. Some media members have asked if the championship trophy can be gifted prematurely to the Wildcats.

The overreaction is baseless but unsurprising. Villanova (35-4) rained 13 3-pointers just in the first half as part of a 95-79 walloping against Kansas on Saturday. It was a game that Michigan coach John Beilein said he was glad he didn’t have time to watch. The Wildcats are led by guard Jalen Brunson — who averages 19.2 points per game — on an already-complete roster.

“As a point guard, and one who wants to be elite at the next level, who wouldn’t want to look forward to a matchup like Brunson (who is) a National Player of the Year?” questioned sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. “They’re a great team. They aren’t No. 1 in the country for no reason. We have to come ready to play, or we’ll get embarrassed.”

Added assistant coach Saddi Washington: “At this point in the season, you’re not really gonna out-trick your opponent. You’ve just gotta be the best version of who you are and hope that’s good enough.”

So yes, Michigan is the clear underdog. But that’s right where this team wants to be.

“When you’re the favorite, especially playing against lower seeds in the NCAA Tournament, it just adds more pressure,” said senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. “You just don’t want to be that team that gets upset. I think our identity from the beginning has been being underdogs throughout the season.”

Michigan coach John Beilein said that the Wildcats have many similarities to Loyola-Chicago, with more size and another shooter at the “5” spot. Villanova’s frontcourt of Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall not only brings athletic shot-blocking prowess, but the duo has also combined for 100 triples this season.

The Wildcats’ strategy isn’t new to the Wolverines. But Villanova spaces the floor well and knocks down shots at a higher clip than anyone Michigan has faced this year.

“We’ve faced some shooting post players like Nebraska, Michigan State when they would go with a smaller lineup with Jaren Jackson Jr., those types of teams,” Washington said. “Spellman, Paschall — those guys are playing at an unbelievable level right now. What they did last night (against Kansas) was impressive.”

For a team as volatile as Michigan, it knows not to get intimidated by how the Wildcats breezed through the tournament to get to this point. It’s another chip on the Wolverines’ shoulders, who are comfortable “getting in the mud,” according to fifth-year senior point guard Jaaron Simmons.

But they will have their work cut out stopping Villanova’s 3-point shooting. The Wildcats have made the most treys in the country, ahead of the second-place team by 1.6 threes per game. In the tournament, Michigan has held opponents to just 24 percent on 3-pointers, while Villanova has converted on 42.3 percent of their attempts.

If the Wildcats can’t hit their threes, it could turn into a rockfight — a type of game that the Wolverines are accustomed to playing. It’s not flashy. Perhaps it's why Michigan was hardly on the national radar before the Big Ten Tournament. But now the Wolverines are here in the title game, and they don’t care how they are being labeled.

“Very few people have been paying attention to us all year. That’s fine with us,” Washington said. “We just go about our business each and every day. That’s the beauty of athletics — one day you’re the darling, one day you’re the hunted and one day you’re the hunter.”