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SAN ANTONIO — Michigan is set to play in the Sweet Sixteen Thursday night against  Villanova, one of the most consistently successful teams in college basketball over the last few seasons. The Wildcats have a talented, experienced roster led by Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie. They also are a historically good free throw shooting team, making them at an 82% clip. 

The Wolverines last played Villanova in the NCAA Tournament in 2018, when the Wildcats defeated Michigan in the National Championship game, which also happened to be in San Antonio. Gillespie, along with fifth-year guard Eli Brooks, were both reserve players in that game. They now face off again five years later as the unequivocal leaders of their respective teams. 

To learn more about this year’s version of Villanova — and which team may have the edge in Thursday’s matchup — The Daily spoke to Colin Beazley, who covers the team for The Villanovan, the University’s student paper. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Why has Villanova been able to have so much success this season, and over the last few years as a program?

So the cliché  answer here is that’s Villanova basketball. Villanova has a precise brand of basketball that they play and it doesn’t really matter who the players are. Everyone is recruited based upon fit in Jay Wright’s system. So everyone comes in, they know exactly what role they have to play and it just works like a well oiled machine. The other thing is Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels have both been here for five years. That’s kind of a common denominator. Collin is their leader. People at Villanova don’t even call him a point guard, they just call him a floor general because everything Villanova does runs through him. He leads the team in points, he leads the team in assists, even leads the team in yelling at the players. He honestly coaches more than Jay does sometimes. That leadership on the floor and that leadership from him and Jermaine is just crucial towards the success that Villanova has had.

Villanova is one of the slowest offenses in the country in terms of pace. What are they able to do to control the tempo of the game so well?

Because of their point guard, they don’t turn the ball over often. Having a graduate leader who’s been able to see everything before means that even with teams that press for 40 minutes or teams that throw random defensive stuff out there, he doesn’t panic — and because of that, they’re able to play at their tempo. Villanova doesn’t want to try and out score you, they don’t want to try to put up 160 points or anything crazy like that. They just want to keep the game slow and play the game at their pace. And if you play the game at their pace, then Villanova always has the advantage.

How has Villanova fared against other teams that had a traditional big man and how do you think they match up against Hunter Dickinson?

I’m not gonna lie, I would be concerned about Dickinson. They’ve played against teams with traditional big men like Creighton, for example, who they faced twice during the season and in the Big East tournament. In the Big East Tournament, Villanova shut down pretty much everyone other than Creighton’s 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner. Basically, Creighton just couldn’t hit a shot from anywhere else. But whenever they gave it to Kalkbrenner in the paint, he was able to have some sort of success. But Villanova did a really good job with making sure that no one else could hurt them. For tonight’s game, I’d say either Dickinson scores like 30-something and Michigan has a chance — or everyone else is shut down.

Who is the X-factor for Villanova in the matchup?

I’d say Eric Dixon with that big man matchup. Michigan’s offense revolves more around Dickinson than Creighton’s does around Kalkbrenner, so I’d say that Dixon is going to have to get some stops. He doesn’t have to stop him every time, but he’s going to have to get some stops even with the height disadvantage. I expect Villanova to space the floor a lot more, force Dickinson to defend out on the perimeter. Eric Dixon is actually Villanova’s leading three-point shooter with a minimum of 30 attempts. He makes something like 48% of his threes. So I expect Villanova to space the floor a little bit more, force Dickinson to defend the perimeter and get him switched onto the smaller guys and have the offense run from there. 

What’s your prediction for the game?

I think it’s going to go a lot like the Ohio State game in terms of scoring. I think Villanova will get ahead early and have a relatively comfortable lead at halftime. Then in the early parts of the second half, I’d expect Michigan to make a run and for the game to come down to the very end. And then it will come down to the graduates of Gillespie and Samuels vs. Eli Brooks for who can get the final word and control the game more at the very end.