VILLANOVA, Pa. — This was not supposed to happen.
Last April, Villanova took the floor in San Antonio and put on a spectacular display of basketball dominance. The Wildcats seemingly scored at will, while suffocating the Michigan men’s basketball team on the other end.
Wednesday night in Villanova, history was supposed to repeat itself.
And it did — except that the roles were reversed, with the 18th-ranked Wolverines (3-0 overall) jumping out to an early lead and never looking back in a stunning, 73-46 win.
If anything went as expected on Wednesday, it was Michigan’s defensive dominance. After allowing just 13 points in the second half of Saturday’s win over Holy Cross, they limited the eighth-ranked Wildcats (2-1) to 17 first half points on 6-of-25 shooting.
Postgame, Villanova coach Jay Wright was asked what went wrong for his team. Midway through a lengthy self-reflection on the Wildcats’ performance, he stopped and corrected himself.
“Number one: their defense.”
At half time, Villanova trailed in all but two categories — personal fouls and turnovers. The Wildcats finished with two more free throws than the Wolverines but the turnover disparity remained, as they finished with 21 — seven more than their made field goal tally.
“We really are gonna probably be as good as our defense is gonna be this year,” said coach John Beilein. “And it was really good today.”
“People ask, ‘well what’s this scheme or what did you do?’ We have really good individual defenders, including our big guy Jon Teske. They’re really good at picking you apart and finding a weakness. We didn’t have many weaknesses individually on defense today and that was a big difference.”
Eight minutes into the first half, Michigan had already quieted a raucous Villanova crowd by building an early 14-8 lead. That wasn’t enough for Beilein, who replaced junior center Jon Teske with freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis and shifted sophomore forward Isaiah Livers to the ‘5,’ where he would remain until Teske returned with 25 seconds left in the half. By that point, the Wolverines led, 44-17.
Livers made a dramatic introduction to his new position, pulling up from just beyond the 3-point arc to hit Michigan’s second consecutive 3-pointer and start a 25-5 run, but his biggest impact came on the defensive end.
“(Livers) allows us, with a driving big like they have, he can stay in front of him,” Beilein said. “… And then, hitting those two 3s in the first half really was big for us. You’ve watched our games, you know right now, we were struggling getting open shots from outside. He knocked down those two 3s.”
Added Wright: “If they’re with (Livers) at the ‘five’ and he’s the biggest guy and he’s guarding our guards, that’s a hell of a team.”
But much like against Holy Cross, it was Brazdeikis and redshirt junior forward Charles Matthews leading the way for the Wolverines. Matthews led all scorers with 19 points — including 16 in the first half.
His most ferocious two came with the game teetering on the edge of a blowout, as Michigan led with 26-13 with 6:29 to play in the first half. Livers missed a layup under the hoop, but Matthews elevated above multiple Villanova would-be rebounders to slam home a two-handed dunk before flexing to the crowd.
“I just play and let my passion take over,” Matthews said. “It was an exciting game, it was a fun game and I got the dunk, and I just screamed. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Livers made amends on the next possession with his second three of the day. Sophomore guard Jordan Poole followed up with an isolation three over forward Jermaine Samuels before Brazdeikis completed an and-one to extend the Wolverines’ lead to 24.
If the Wildcats had any suppositions of a second-half comeback, junior guard Zavier Simpson — Michigan’s defensive star all night — quickly put those to rest with a basket, steal, and fast-break assist to put the Wolverines up 32 within two minutes.
From there, the rest of the game — much like the closing minutes of the national championship — was little more than a formality. Only this time, it was Michigan exhibiting its dominance.
“Whatever the final score was,” Wright said, “it wasn’t that close.”
Safe to say, that is not something the defending national champions were planning to say about a 27-point defeat.