Michigan has reached the national title game for the second time in five years, and this time around the Wolverines are getting it done almost entirely with defense.
True, Moe Wagner recorded a stellar 24-15 double-double against Loyola-Chicago. The junior showed signs of snapping out of what had previously been a 3-point funk, hitting three of his seven tries from beyond the arc and crashing the glass for six offensive rebounds.
Wagner was excellent against the Ramblers, and Charles Matthews was a deserving West Region Most Outstanding Player. Still, game for game, it has been defense that has carried John Beilein's team in the tournament. Michigan held its five opponents to just 0.88 points per possession, a level of D that more than speaks for itself.
How did Michigan reach this point? Here's what we think we know about an amazing Wolverines defense that's on the cusp of winning the program's first national title in 29 years.
Michigan is punishing opposing offenses in the paint
Loyola led 41-31 with 14 minutes remaining in the national semifinal. From that point on, however, the Wolverines closed the game on a 38-16 run.
Obviously, UM's offense was impressive during that stretch, scoring more points in 14 minutes than it had in the previous 26. Nevertheless, the statistics for Beilein's defense over that same sequence of possessions were, if anything, even more noteworthy.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Michigan contested 24 of Loyola's 27 shot attempts from the field in the second half, including the first 16 Ramblers shots. Loyola didn't record an "open" shot until 4:43 remained in the game, by which time the Wolverines held a five-point lead.
Incredibly, these numbers are in keeping with what Michigan has done defensively throughout (almost) all of the tournament. With the exception of its 99-72 explosion against Texas A&M, Beilein's team has been absolutely unrelenting on defense inside the arc.
Throw out the laugher against the Aggies, and the Wolverines have held tournament opponents to 40 percent shooting on their 2s. UM is getting this done without a shot-blocker and, indeed, without much in the way of shot-blocking.
Attempts are contested, ball screens are nullified, cutters are covered and open looks are denied. It's not glamorous, but here we are, talking about Michigan's defense in April.
At the same time, Michigan is chasing opponents off the 3-point line
In the game that ended its historic tournament run, Loyola notched season lows for both 3-point makes and attempts. That, again, fits the profile for a Wolverines defense that has held five tournament opponents to a combined total of just 18 made 3s -- the same number of treys that Villanova sank in a mere 40 minutes against Kansas.
This is where good fortune begins to come in. Yes, Michigan has been limiting attempts from beyond the arc, and certainly the Wolverines have additionally been contesting the tries that do occur. But when opposing offenses are shooting just 24 percent on their 3s, as UM's tournament opponents are, it's probable that your incontrovertibly excellent defense additionally has had a fortuitous wind at its back.
It's possible, after all, that Michigan has reduced open 3-point attempts by opposing offenses to a remarkably small number, and that opponents have missed a remarkably high share of those open tries. Both statements can be valid.
Yes, the path through the bracket has been, shall we say, smooth
It's true that, by opponent seed, Michigan has had an unusually easy five-game route to the first Monday night in April. The Wolverines have defeated opponents seeded Nos. 14, 6, 7, 9 and 11. That adds up to 47, which is a high number in historical terms.
Even so, it bears repeating that Michigan did beat the team (Florida State) that beat the big scary No. 1 seed that would have changed everything (Xavier). Not to mention Texas A&M ran North Carolina off the floor and won by 21. Why do we discount victories over proven opponents?
Speaking of proven opponents, Houston figured to be a tougher test on paper, even in advance of the game itself, than many higher-seeded teams in the field of 68 would have been. In other words, it was a pretty safe bet that the team that emerged from a game between the Cougars and the Wolverines was going to be a very tough out. That has indeed been the case.
What all of the above will mean against Villanova
For a while now it has been apparent that Michigan constitutes, easily, the best defensive test the "rest of the field" can throw at a Villanova offense that's looking increasingly unstoppable. The Wolverines may have earned that honor as early as the night UMBC made history by dropping No. 1 overall seed Virginia. Certainly by the time a rugged bunch of Cincinnati veterans were stunned by Nevada's furious comeback, the matter was pretty well settled.
Given this state of affairs, there are perhaps two straws in the wind for the Wolverines, one hopeful and the other rather more ominous. The hopeful note to be struck in advance of a game against the Wildcats is that even Jay Wright's offense has looked non-scary and downright normal about 27 percent of the time of late (i.e., in three of Villanova's past 11 outings), most recently against Texas Tech.
Then again, Villanova won that game against the Red Raiders by 12 points, which is the closest any tournament opponent has come to the Wildcats at the final horn. Can Michigan beat those odds? If any team can do so, it's surely the Wolverines and their remarkable new-look no-open-looks defense.