After defeating Tennessee last Saturday, the Michigan men’s basketball team had to wait to find out who they would be taking on in the Sweet Sixteen. On Sunday afternoon, that opponent materialized — and it was a worthy one:
Perhaps no team has been more synonymous with NCAA Tournament success the last five years than the Wildcats, who are 18-3 in their last 21 tournament games and have won two national championships in that span.
This year’s iteration of Villanova is no different, marching into the second weekend as a two-seed after going 28-7 on the year and recently winning the Big East Tournament. They have a plethora of talented guards and consistently shoot the lights out from deep — averaging more than nine 3-pointers a game.
“Villanova is really disciplined,” sophomore center Hunter Dickinson said. “They’ve run their sets. Coach Wright has them really trained to do the Villanova system… They have really good talent, really good shooting, and can really space the floor.”
The floor spacing has been on full display so far this tournament for the Wildcats. For the most part, they have cruised through the first two rounds, beating No. 15 seed Delaware and No. 7 seed Ohio State by twenty and 10, respectively. They’ve knocked down 21 3-pointers over their first two rounds and had their way offensively thanks to their bread and butter, the ball screen.
Ball screens have been difficult for Michigan to defend all year. Villanova presents the toughest challenge yet. The Wildcats play at one of the slowest paces in the country, but are able to move the ball patiently until they find an open shot. The offense is led by guard Collin Gillepsie, the Big East Player of the Year, who shoots 41% from deep. In addition to Gillepsie, VIllanova boasts three other players who average double figures per game: forward Jermaine Samuels and guards Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels.
“It makes more people have to be disciplined on defense,” fifth-year guard Eli Brooks said. “They’ve got fours and fives that can shoot the ball, so we’re going to have to do a good job all around closing out, under control, because they all can put the ball on the ground as well. Just not shooters, they can also put the ball on the ground and score for themselves.”
The Wildcats biggest strength, though, is their free throw shooting. The Wildcats shoot a historically good 82.6% from the line — which is on pace to be the best mark in Division 1 history. It makes Villanova a difficult team to beat in tight matchups, because it always hits its free throws down the stretch to close out games.
The biggest advantage that the Wolverines have is size. While the Wildcats have a wealth of shooters, they don’t have a player in their rotation taller than 6-foot-8 center Eric Dixon. Michigan, meanwhile, can roll out the 7-foot-1 Dickinson alongside freshman forward Moussa Diabate, who stands at 6-foot-11. The Wolverines will look to impose their will in the paint, trying to feed their big men in the post and snare offensive rebounds to generate extra possessions. On paper, this appears to be a huge mismatch in the Wolverines’ favor.
But exploiting it is easier said than done. Michigan coach Juwan Howard, a former big man himself, isn’t taking the matchup lightly.
“When you’re a 6-foot-7 center — people look at centers, and think they’ve got to be 6-foot-9 or seven feet,” Howard said. “Sometimes you look at that as a slight, but (Dixon’s) not just a center, he’s a basketball player. But he’s a competitive basketball player built with a lot of strength, toughness, who can shoot the basketball extremely well and plays with a high IQ.”
The Wildcats have managed to win a lot of games this year — and against teams with traditional centers — without a true center themselves. If there’s a game plan for the Wolverines to follow, it’s their Big Ten counterparts, the Boilermakers. Back in November, Purdue beat Villanova, deploying its 7-foot-4 big man Zach Edey to the tune of 21 points and six rebounds.
Michigan and Villanova don’t have a ton in common in terms of basketball styles, but each knows its strengths. If the Wolverines can slow down the Wildcats shooters while having their way on the inside and getting some shots to fall of their own, it could tip the scales in the Wolverines favor. If it comes down to free throw shooting late, it may be curtains on Michigan’s unlikely Tournament run.
“We’re going to be dialed into how we play,” Howard said. “Stick to what we play, trust it, have belief in one another and compete for 40 minutes.”