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Can Michigan basketball beat Villanova to win national championship?

Michigan plays Villanova for college basketball title

Moritz Wagner and Charles Matthews celebrate during a win over the Loyola Ramblers in the Final Four at the Alamodome on March 31, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Moritz Wagner and Charles Matthews celebrate during a win over the Loyola Ramblers in the Final Four at the Alamodome on March 31, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO – Five games down, one to go.

Michigan will play for the college basketball national championship Monday after beating Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four. The Wolverines have won 14 straight games, but No. 15 will certainly be the toughest.

It hasn't been the toughest road to the championship in terms of seeding. Michigan has beaten teams seeded 14th, sixth, seventh, ninth and 11th, and Villanova is No. 1. Since Virginia's shocking loss to No. 16 seed UMBC weeks ago, Villanova has assumed the role as championship favorite, and Saturday certainly didn't change that.

LIVE UPDATES: Michigan basketball takes on Villanova

Villanova's historic Final Four win

After Michigan came back from two 10-point deficits to knock off Loyola, most fans stuck around the Alamodome to see who the championship opponent would be.

The outcome was obvious after five minutes of game time.

Villanova sprinted out to a 16-4 lead, and the only drama was whether or not the Wildcats would break the Final Four's 3-point record before halftime. They didn't quite get there, tying the record with 13 triples in the first half and breaking it soon after the half.

In the end, Villanova made 18 triples and shot better than 55 percent overall from the floor. The Wildcats have shooters, drivers, passers and shot blockers, and they certainly look like the best team in the country.

Can Michigan win?

Villanova opened as a 6.5-point favorite over Michigan, and that feels like an appropriate line. But it would be outrageous to say the Wolverines, who earned their way to the biggest stage in the sport, can't win this game.

Especially during a tournament in which UMBC beat the clear-cut No. 1 overall seed in Virginia by 20 points, it would be foolish to act as though Michigan has already settled for second place. Is Villanova a better team? It looked like it on Saturday. But the gap between Villanova and Michigan is much narrower than the gap between several teams that have been upset earlier in the tournament.

The University of Michigan bench celebrates during the team'sNCAA men's basketball tournament game against Texas A&M on March 22, 2018, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The University of Michigan bench celebrates during the team'sNCAA men's basketball tournament game against Texas A&M on March 22, 2018, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

During its 14-game winning streak, Michigan knocked off Michigan State and Purdue in back-to-back games on a neutral court. At the time, both MSU and Purdue were playing for a potential No. 1 seed, and Michigan was the much better team.

The Wolverines have proven they can win in a variety of different ways. They won a shootout with Texas A&M, scoring 99 points on one of the top defenses in college basketball. Against Houston and Florida State, Michigan found a way to win while scoring fewer than 70 points.

Michigan has won leading wire-to-wire and won coming from behind. John Beilein's ability to adapt to each game has made Michigan the hottest team in the nation.

Villanova's offensive depth

Villanova's offense is ridiculously good, and the numbers reflected that way before its dismantling of Kansas.

According to KenPom rankings, Villanova has the No. 1 offense in the country by a landslide. The margin between Villanova's offense and the No. 2 offense in the country is roughly equivalent to the margin between the No. 2 and No. 15 offenses. That's how much better the Wildcats are offensively compared to the rest of the country.

Villanova is so dangerous because it has several legitimate scoring threats who can finish around the rim or burn teams from outside.

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Jalen Brunson is what fuels Villanova's offense, which is why he was named the top player in college basketball this season. Brunson averages 19.2 points per game while shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range and 52 percent overall. He also averages 4.7 assists and 3.1 rebounds per contest.

But if teams focus too much about Brunson, there are five additional scoring options on the roster, all of whom average more than 10 points per game.

Mikal Bridges is has been Brunson's most consistent partner in crime this season, but Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall have been just as good in recent games.

Donte DiVincenzo and Phil Booth both average more than 10 points, three assists and three rebounds per game.

Thanks in large part to those six players, Villanova shoots better than 40 percent from beyond the arc, better than 50 percent overall and nearly 80 percent from the free-throw line.

Key matchup

Zavier Simpson is coming off his worst performance since early February in the game against Loyola. He didn't score a single point and had more turnovers than assists. Beilein played Jaaron Simmons and Eli Brooks a combined 14 minutes because of Simpson's struggles.

Zavier Simpson has become the leader of Michigan's elite defense. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Zavier Simpson has become the leader of Michigan's elite defense. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Despite the ill-timed off game, Simpson is one of the top reasons Michigan is still alive. Now, he faces the toughest defensive matchup college basketball has to offer. Simpson has shut down opposing guards all year, but now he'll be matched up with the player of the year on the best offense in the country.

Brunson drew one of college basketball's toughest one-on-one matchups in the Sweet 16 against West Virginia's Jevon Carter, and responded by scoring 27 points. Carter is one of the few players regarded as a better perimeter defender than Simpson, but Michigan can't allow Brunson to explode for 27 points.

Villanova was able to pick apart Kansas' defense by penetrating and kicking out to open shooters. If Simpson makes Brunson uncomfortable and disrupts that offensive flow, Michigan could have a chance to slow down the buzz saw that is Villanova's offense.

Moritz Wagner

Since Beilein called on him as a true freshman in the NCAA Tournament two years ago, Moritz Wagner has stepped up in Michigan's biggest games. He helped the Wolverines upset No. 2 seed Louisville to get to the Sweet 16 last year, and broke out in a similar way against Loyola.

Moritz Wagner was named MVP of the 2018 Big Ten Tournament. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Moritz Wagner was named MVP of the 2018 Big Ten Tournament. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

When Simpson, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman were struggling throughout the first half, Wagner and Charles Matthews kept Michigan alive by themselves. In the second half, it was Wagner who kept the Wolverines close and eventually pulled them over the hump.

He finished with 24 points, 15 rebounds and three steals. Wagner is just the third player in the last 40 years to score at least 20 points and grab 15 rebounds in a Final Four game, joining basketball legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird.

Villanova provides a unique challenge for Wagner because Paschall and Spellman are athletic enough to stick with him when he leaves the paint. Wagner won't be able to athletically dominate Villanova as he did Loyola, but he still has to be excellent for Michigan to stand a chance.

The Wildcats have the No. 14 defense in the country, but Wagner is still good enough to do major damage in the championship game.

Last call for the seniors

During Michigan's 14-game winning streak, Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson have been excellent on both ends of the court. But on Saturday, both seniors struggled in what was almost their last college game.

Robinson scored nine points in the game and hit a pair of important 3-pointers, but he only finished 2-6 from the floor and missed a couple of open looks. Abdur-Rahkman, meanwhile, shot 2-11 for seven points.

Michigan found a way to beat Loyola without good games from Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman, but Beilein will need his seniors to step up if they're going to bring the championship back to Ann Arbor. MAAR has been a strong defender, reliable shooter and stabilizing presence on the court for the Wolverines this season, and he needs to be all three Monday when they take the floor.

Win or lose, Monday will be the last game for Robinson and MAAR at Michigan, so they're probably going to bounce back in a big way.

Strengths align

Villanova's offense vs. Michigan's defense will be a classic battle of strength against strength.

While the reputation of Villanova's offense is well documented, Michigan's defense has been similarly dominant. Michigan has the No. 3 defense in the nation, and has held three teams under 60 points in the tournament. Villanova will certainly break 60 points, but Michigan isn't likely to give up a number in the 90s.

Charles Matthews struggled through Big Ten season, but now he's helped carry Michigan to a Final Four. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Charles Matthews struggled through Big Ten season, but now he's helped carry Michigan to a Final Four. (Harry How/Getty Images)

For the better part of two months, Michigan has found a way to play enough defense to keep itself in every single game, regardless of the offensive struggles.

Michigan can't afford to have long droughts against the Wildcats, because they'll eventually hit enough shots to pull away. But Michigan hasn't allowed a team to score 80 points since January, so as long as it doesn't shoot as poorly as it did Saturday, the game should stay within striking distance.

Beilein has several young players in his regular rotation -- freshmen Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers, sophomores Jon Teske and Simpson and newcomers Matthews and Simmons -- but no stage has been too big for them.

Michigan has won in tough arenas away from home, earned another Big Ten Tournament title and made its way to the national championship game. This team is one of only two left standing in college basketball, and even as a significant underdog, it's unwise to count the Wolverines out.

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