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It’s Villanova vs. Michigan For The 2018 NCAA Basketball Championship

This tournament has been so deliriously good that no one has even mentioned the FBI

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NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Villanova vs Kansas
Mar 31, 2018; San Antonio, TX, United States; Villanova Wildcats guard Donte DiVincenzo (10) hots a three-point shot over Kansas Jayhawks guard Malik Newman (14) during the second half in the semifinals of the 2018 men’s Final Four at Alamodome. 
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The pretenders are gone now and after Saturday we’re down to two: Michigan and Villanova.

We were completely wrong in our predictions but you know, as the last Sam Kinison used to say, if you’re going to miss Heaven by an inch might as well miss by a mile. The man had a point.

We thought that Loyola would be the better defensive team but Michigan proved us wrong.

And we thought that Kansas could control Villanova’s three point shooting. Boy were we ever wrong about that.

Loyola first.

Michigan trailed for a good bit of the game before coming back and taking the lead with 6:20 left and then pushing it out to ten before settling for an eight point win.

The Wolverines forced 17 turnovers and made life difficult in winning time very tough for the Ramblers. Loyola had six consecutive turnovers and just seemed to run out of gas.

The question in the end was simple: did they belong? And the answer was: yes, they did. They were deserving. The Ramblers were competitive. They led much of the way and they defended hard.

They just didn’t have enough left to hold off Michigan at the end and had no answer for Mo Wagner, who has been superb in March and particularly so Saturday night, hitting 10-16 including 3-7 from deep. He also had 15 rebounds and three steals. We’re surprised no one has, to our knowledge anyway, tried to call him the Berlin Wall.

As for Villanova, the Wildcats tied the Final Four record for threes…in the first half. Villanova shot 13-26 in the opening stanza which was magnificent. Who scores 39 points on threes in a half? This side of Golden State?

Jay Wright’s team tied a 31-year old record - in the first half. Stop and think about that.

Villanova finished with 47 total points in the opening half, meaning just eight points resulted from something other than three point shots.

That’s astounding.

‘Nova finished shooting 18-40 which is only slightly off of their first-half pace of 50%. Eric Paschall finished 10-11.

So it’s Big East vs. Big Ten for the national title.

Let’s pause for a minute and consider what Jay Wright has built: in the age of one-and-done he has found players who may or may not be good enough for the NBA but who stick around and form multi-year chemistry. His program has gone a very long way towards revitalizing the Big East after the tension between football and non-football schools made the old Big East no longer workable. And his perimeter game has shake up the college game immensely.

And why not? There are no Kevins in the college game. The Garnetts and Durants head to the NBA as quickly as they can, as do the Bagleys and Aytons. Forwards are now centers or, as Jeff Capel said the other day in his intro press conference at Pitt, the only position left is point guard.

The college game, with all its issues and problems, still has some compelling aspects. We couldn’t be more impressed with what Villanova did Saturday.

Here’s the problem though.

As we have pointed out before, it’s really difficult for one person to hit peak performance twice in a row. For a team, to get 5-10 guys to play at their peak individually and collectively twice in a row, it’s nearly impossible.

Consider the past.

Houston’s dunkathon vs. Louisville in 1983 was so great that even the Louisville kids ran to the monitors to see replays.

Lost to NC State.

In 2015, Kentucky was simply awesome and just destroyed West Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen before barely beating Notre Dame then falling to Wisconsin.

You can look up plenty of examples but the basic point is this: ideally you want your great game, your very best effort, to be your last game.

This happened for UNLV in 1990, when the Rebels just left Duke awed and gobsmacked.

Duke had an answer in 1991, playing a brilliant game to knock off the Rebels in the semifinals.

Duke won against Kansas on that Monday night, but it was more a question of gutting it out. It couldn’t possibly match the emotions of that UNLV game.

So while Villanova will be favored Monday night over Michigan, odds are they won’t have an epic offensive performance.

For one thing, John Beilein is a tremendous coach. He saw what just happened and will adjust to the best of his and his team’s abilities.

He’s run an interesting 1-3-1 at times when Duke and Michigan have played for instance and a lot of people think this is the best defensive team he’s had at Michigan. Turns out there’s a reason for that.

Beilein has a new assistant this year, who is apparently a defensive savant. He’s helped remake the Wolverine defense.

We haven’t watched Villanova a whole lot this year and you know, if you can hit 50% from three point range, give or take, why wouldn’t you?

The flip side of that thought is the same question Tony Bennett and Shaka Smart get: what happens when Plan A fails? If Michigan can take away the deep shot, can Villanova adjust?

The Wildcats took 65 shots against KU. Of those, only 18 were not three pointers. And of those, Villanova made just 10.

Clearly they didn’t need to go inside against Kansas, but what if they had?

Remember also as you consider this game that Michigan just held Loyola to 1-10 from three point range.

We’ll close for now with two things we remember about Michigan under Beilein.

First, several years ago we remember one kid talking/mock complaining about the complexity of the offense, saying that Beilein runs some incredibly elaborate plays.

Duke-Michigan games since he’s been there tend to be close and we’ve seen some incredible Michigan comebacks.

And second, this March one of his current players marveled that upon arriving at Michigan, players were doing “junior high drills.”

It’s a bit like John Wooden starting summer camp by teaching his campers how to put socks on correctly. Sounds silly until you have blisters.

Part of the reason that Michigan is so competitive and so able to run elaborate plays and so able to mount comebacks is because Beilein, as much as anyone in the college game, insists that his players master fundamental skills.

That can matter and matter a lot.

In the 30 for 30 show ESPN did about the ’83 NC State-Houston title game, Derrick Whittenburg discussed the final play of the game. The pass that came to him out past the top of the key was a bit high. He and one of the Houston players - we’re thinking it was Benny Anders but that might be wrong - both went for it.

However, Anders reached with one hand and Whittenburg reached with two.

Thank God, he said smiling, for Morgan Wooten teaching us fundamentals at DeMatha.

He got the ball, shot it - or passed it if you ask him. Either way, Lorenzo Charles was the only one who realized that it was short and he caught it and dunked it for the win at the buzzer.

What does it mean?

Heck if we know.

But we think this is a reasonable supposition: Villanova is not going to score 39 points on threes in the first half on Michigan. Michigan’s fundamental soundness and solid defense will mean that Villanova won’t win in a laugher.

And please remember this too: in a tight grinder of a game, two of Michigan’s starters played 12 and 26 minutes (those same two starters didn’t score).

Michigan played eight guys substantial minutes and only one guy got more than two fouls (7-1 Jon Teske got three in three minutes).

Villanova won with ease but still only played seven guys with six guys getting the vast majority of the minutes. Freshman Omari Spellman picked up four fouls. And all that three point shooting, legendary as it will be, kept KU out of foul trouble and sent Villanova to the line just seven times.

There’s a path here for Michigan: defend the three, defend hard overall, wear Villanova down and be ready to pounce when they tire.

Sort of like what happened to Loyola actually.

We’re not saying Michigan will win necessarily. We’ll have to think about that and our recent track record isn't promising.

But do hey have a chance? Absolutely. From here Monday night looks like a great championship game.

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