The Villanova Wildcats, fresh off a thumping of Baker’s Bobcats, return home to campus to face the Michigan Wolverines on Wednesday night. The game will mark the “true” opening of The Finn while Morgan State is relegated to a trivia answer.
Obviously, the game is being billed as a “re-match” of last year’s National Championship game, which Villanova squeaked out by 17 points, and a chance at “revenge” for Michigan. It’s often said that revenge is a dish best served both cold and in the November non-conference schedule at a 6,500 seat arena, so the narrative is unsurprising.
However, the reality is that these two teams are not the two teams that squared off in San Antonio in April. While we’ve bemoaned the losses suffered by Villanova, Michigan has been facing its own personnel struggles
To start, Michigan is without Moritz Wagner, Duncan Robinson, Muhammad-Ali Abdur–Rahkman, three of last year’s four top scorers. Wagner has made his way to Los Angeles, where he is regularly punked by Josh Hart, while Robinson and Abdur-Rahkman are with the Miami Heat and the G League’s Canton Charge, respectively.
The Wolverines return senior Charles Matthews and junior Zavier Simpson, basically the lone upperclassmen on the squad, while the talented trio of freshman from last year, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, and Eli Brooks, enter their second season. The Wolverines also bring in freshman Ignas Brazdeikis, a talented freshman forward from Lithuania who played his high school ball in Canada.
If you are tempted to go back and re-watch last year’s National Championship game to get some film on these players, don’t bother. The five returning players collectively tallied 19 points on 8-24 shooting from the field. The stats are even more unimpressive when you consider that Livers, Simpson, and Matthews started the game, averaging 29 minutes a piece, and ended up with 16 points between them.
However, while the season is young, we do have two games through which to assess how the Wolverines are adjusting to this summer’s departures: Answer.
Let’s start with the good. As we know, John Beilein prides himself on his team’s ability to play tough defense. A calling card of Michigan in the past has been their ability to chase shooters off the three point line, keep them off balance, and make them uncomfortable. To an extent, Michigan was successful in this regard against Villanova, who aside from Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo, went 2-13 from deep in the National Championship.
Despite the increased roles for Michigan’s young players, the defense has been solid. The Wolverines currently rank Top-5 in AdjD and rank 7th in 2-point defense. They are tough inside, ranking just outside the top-20 in blocks and rebounds. While the caliber of opponents thus far must be taken into account, it at least appears that the returning players have been somewhat successful in falling back into the habits that buoyed the nation’s third best defense last year.
If a terrible smell has just overtaken you, it is because we have moved on to Michigan’s offense. There is a part of me that considers whether putting the following out in the universe will somehow have a karmic effect on the game. Nevertheless, I will persist because the numbers are cold, unforgiving, and now, presented without comment:
- Michigan’s Effective Field Goal Percentage: 296th in the country
- Michigan’s 3-Point Percentage: 309th in the country
- Michigan’s 2-Point Percentage: 194th in the country
- Michigan’s Free Throw Percentage: 258th in the country
A team comprised solely of wholesome Midwestern mothers all named Ann Arbor could put up better offensive numbers than this current squad. Michigan has struggled mightily creating offense and, on Saturday, the Wolverines were held to just 18 first half points by a Holy Cross team ranked 187th in AdjD. Brazdeiki and Matthews, each averaging 15 points per game, have been the go-to guys in an offense that is completely and utterly stagnant at the moment. The team is currently shooting 36% from the floor and 20% from deep. Something is wrong.
The issue with offensive numbers this, well, offensive, is that they do not necessarily comport with how we (and everyone) expect Michigan to play. At some point, some of these players will begin to play to their potential and (hopefully) it won’t be this week. That being said, Michigan’s offense is clearly struggling to replace Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman and it has thus far settled for Matthews and Brazdeikis shouldering most of the load.
While Matthews was basically a non-factor in the National Championship game, he is expected to be both the senior leader and a major contributor for the Wolverines this year. Averaging just over 15 points in 33 minutes this season, he’s a threat in and around the basket. He likes taking players off the dribble and slashing into the lane. However, beyond that, he struggles to shoot from distance, shooting 20% so far from deep. He’s relatively limited in what he brings to the table and, with sufficient tape out there, Villanova should be able to adequately scout and defend him.
As for Ignas Brazdeikis, Villanova should be able to defend the 6’7 forward with a mix-and-match of their athletic wings. “Iggy” is a talented forward with a decent handle who loves to create space with a nifty little step-back. However, he has the quickness to keep a defense honest and is not shy about driving to the basket if a defender gets too aggressive. He’s “feasted,” relatively, on lesser competition and going up against the likes of Samuels and Bey on the wing, just to meet Paschall at the rim, should give him some nightmares.
Speaking of nightmares, loyal VUhoops readers will remember Eli Brooks, Michigan’s sophomore guard, as the recruit who proclaimed Villanova his “dream school” prior to committing to the Wolverines. Brooks is currently tallying just over 20 minutes and five points a game so, while he’s unlikely to be a major factor, there could be some incentive for him to “show out.”
As you can see, this is a re-match in name only, with both teams fielding and relying on completely different line-ups. Overall, you have to imagine that Michigan finds more issues with their scouting report of Villanova than the ones I’ve outlined above. Despite being a young team, Villanova has already established that it is a legitimate perimeter threat with at least three to four scoring options available. Michigan is far more limited in what it has been able to do thus far and Villanova’s versatility should give the ‘Cats a slight edge in this one.
This National Championship re-match and Top 20 match-up tips off tomorrow at 6-freakin-30 p.m. EST on Fox Sports 1 so, if you have a job, plan accordingly and get that second monitor up and running.