Only two teams end their season on Monday night and only one leaves with a trophy.
Michigan’s run to this game was a remarkable story of individual growth, team defense and a bit of luck. The Wolverines made it to the season’s final day despite playing poor offense in five of their six NCAA Tournament games.
This team defended like no other team that John Beilein has coached in his 40-year career, but in the end that defense wasn’t enough to slow down the best offense in college basketball.
At the game’s highest level, you have to be able to hit shots. Sometimes difficult guarded shots. Moritz Wagner made those shots in the first five minutes of the game, but Donte DiVincenzo owned the game’s final 35. DiVincenzo knocked in 31 points on 10-of-15 (5-7 3pt shooting) in an NCAA Tournament performance for the ages.
Michigan’s defense which appeared to be almost impenetrable in the NCAA Tournament’s early rounds just couldn’t figure out a way to record multiple stops in a row. And its offense wasn’t ready for a shootout. The Wolverines only made 3-of-23 3-pointers on the night, missing 18 of their last 19 perimeter shots.
Michigan’s offense finished the night at .93 points per possession, its fifth NCAA Tournament game this season at 1.01 points per possession or worse. Prior to this year, a Beilein-coached Michigan team had never failed to score a point per possession in a NCAA Tournament game.
The majority of the negative blips on the radar this season came when Michigan’s offense short-circuited so it is no surprise that the season eventually ended when the offense couldn’t come up with any answers.
As the best defensive teams have done against Michigan, Villanova turned Michigan’s offense into an isolation challenge by using its versatility to switch screens on the perimeter. The Wolverines only recorded 6 assists on 24 made baskets as their guards were forced to drive and attempt to finish at the rim all night.
It wasn’t just the offense. Michigan’s defense had been good enough to carry it to wins in games where its offense couldn’t produce, but the defense couldn’t do it tonight. Villanova, specifically Donte DiVincenzo, was just too good. The Wildcats scored 1.18 points per possession which was tied for their second-worst offensive performance in the NCAA Tournament. (That Villanova offense sure is something.)
The Wildcats shot 57% on twos and 37% on threes and made 15-of-20 free throws. Villanova’s 27 3-point attempts were the most that Michigan allowed all season. Some were guarded, some were deep, but Michigan just couldn’t take that perimeter shot away completely from an offense this good. In trying to do so, the Wolverines left themselves exposed to Villanova on the inside with an array of backcuts and strong drives against closeouts.
Michigan also allowed Villanova to rebound 36% of its missed shots and convert 10 second chance points. Several of the rebounds were fluky, but they all felt backbreaking for a team that couldn’t force many first-shot misses to begin with.
At the end of the day, Michigan had the right gameplan but Villanova made the big plays and the big shots. Only 7 of Villanova’s 27 makes were assisted, but they had the better offensive players and better shot making.
This season was easily the best coaching job of John Beilein’s tenure in Ann Arbor. He took a team that appeared to be critically flawed in November and coached it to the final game of the season. Almost every player on the roster faced some roadblock in the middle of the season, only to work through it and play their best basketball down the stretch. The feeling is bittersweet tonight, but this season will long be remembered as a success — even if no one can ever figure out exactly why it all clicked.
- Moritz Wagner: Wagner was dominant in the early minutes of the game, but Villanova adjusted well to Michigan’s ball screen action. He scored 9 of Michigan’s first 11 points and then managed only 7 more points the rest of the night. Omari Spellman’s physical play seemed to fluster him at times and he turned the ball over 4 times in 33 minutes.
- Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: Abdur-Rahkman’s drives to the basket kept Michigan’s offense afloat. He was 6-of-6 inside the arc and just 2-of-7 from 3-point range in a 23-point showing. In his final career game, Abdur-Rahkman played one of the most stereotypical Abdur-Rahkman games. He carved up a defense by putting his head down to the rim in a game where no one else could get anything done. 141 games later, Abdur-Rahkman’s career finally came to an end.
- Charles Matthews: Matthews ended the NCAA Tournament with his worst performance, but this was a terrific tournament run for the 6-foot-6 wing. He turned the ball over 3 times, was only 3-of-9 inside the arc and went 0-of-4 at the free throw line as he struggled to adjust in a game where he wasn’t the only elite athlete on the floor. His future is clearly bright and the amount that he improved this season is phenomenal, especially the way that he pulled himself out of that February drought.
- Zavier Simpson: Simpson battled in this game and held Jalen Brunson to his only single-digit scoring performance of the season. He missed a pair of 3-pointers and couldn’t convert a few key layups late in the first half, but he was aggressive getting to the rim when Villanova’s defense forced him to. I’m fascinated by what comes next for the sophomore point guard. He essentially redefined the point guard position at Michigan this season. He dominated games despite not being able to do the one thing that I’d have said was most important for a Beilein point guard: shoot off the dribble. Simpson made it through 40 games without making an off the dribble jumper (0-of-12) but changed games with his defense. Beilein spoke earlier this year about letting go of teaching Simpson some of those things that he couldn’t do during the season and focusing more on what he can do in the now, but now the question is how much can Simpson develop his offensive game before next season.
- Duncan Robinson: Duncan Robinson’s two fouls on one possession in the first half might have been one of the biggest swing moments of the game. Michigan generally sees a bit of offensive uptick when Robinson checks in off the bench, but instead he sat right back down. Robinson was never able to get going in the second half despite playing 19 minutes as he failed to score in his final collegiate game.
- Jordan Poole: Poole scored with a terrific and-one move in the first half right after he checked into the game, but then things spiraled out of control for him. He let the game speed up and started to force the issue by putting his head down and flying to the rim in the second half. Poole has a huge opportunity ahead of him this summer as he attempts to break into the starting lineup and play more consistent and more reliable basketball. He got just enough of a taste this year to accelerate his progress.
- Isaiah Livers: Livers scored just 9 points in the final 9 games of the season. He’s played on the big stage, but Michigan is going to need him to step up his offensive abilities as a sophomore. If he doesn’t there are plenty of big wings arriving on campus next year that will try to take his minutes.
- Jon Teske: Teske couldn’t quite hang in his 7 minutes of playing time off the bench but did rack up 2 points, 3 rebounds and an assist. He’s been a great option for Michigan against teams with more traditional bigs, but Villanova’s frontcourt was a tough matchup for him.
- Jaaron Simmons: Simmons only played three minutes off the bench, but the graduate transfer finished his career by playing in the National Championship. Things didn’t go perfect for Simmons during his year in Ann Arbor, but the story ended better than most could have imagined.