Storylines are always bountiful heading into the final night of the college basketball season, and with good reason. Who wins the national championship, whether it’s a team achieving the feat for the first time in program history or the 10th, has a trickle-down effect that touches virtually everyone in the sport in some way.
The 2018 championship game is even more ripe with alluring themes than most. At stake will be key evidence in debates over style of play, conference stature, and program superiority.
Here are the three biggest storylines heading into Monday night’s showdown from San Antonio between Villanova and Michigan.
1. Villanova’s offense vs. Michigan’s defense
The dream matchup for most in a game like this is the tournament’s best offense vs. the tournament’s second-best offense. The next best thing is the tournament’s best offense vs. the tournament’s best defense.
Villanova has been the best offensive team in college basketball since the opening tip in November. With one game still to play, the 2017-18 Wildcats have already set 12 program records, as well as setting a new NCAA record three-pointers made in a season and three-pointers made in an NCAA tournament. They’re coming off a performance against Kansas in which they set a new record for made three-pointers in a Final Four game (18), and broke the old record less than two minutes into the second half.
That ‘Nova offense will receive its toughest test of the tournament Monday from the best defensive team John Beilein has ever coached. The Wolverines are currently No. 3 in the country in defensive efficiency, and have been especially good when it comes to defending the three-point shot. That’s where the real allure in this matchup lies.
Michigan hasn’t let teams burn it from the outside this year because they haven’t let teams get off clean looks from the outside. Or they just haven’t let them get off any looks from the outside. Only four teams in the country have allowed their opponents to attempt a lower percentage of their shots from beyond the arc, and only nine have allowed their opponents to score a lower percentage of their total points via the three-point shot.
Against Loyola, a team that came into the Final Four averaging about 20 three-point attempts per game, Michigan limited the Ramblers to just 10 attempts from deep and only one make. Over the entire tournament, the Wolverines have held their five opponents to 18 of 75 (24 percent) shooting on three-pointers, and no team has attempted more than 17 treys. It’s the biggest reason why Beilein’s team is allowing just 58.6 points per game during March Madness and hasn’t allowed any team to score more than 72.
Of course it’s also worth noting that Michigan is the first team in NCAA tournament history to make the national championship game without playing a top-five seed. Slowing down the Villanova offense is the tallest task the Wolverines’ D has seen all season.
2. The quest to end the Big Ten title drought
It’s been 18 long years since Tom Izzo and Michigan State took down Florida to claim the 2000 national championship.
Since that time the ACC has claimed seven national titles, the Big East five, the SEC three, and the Big 12 and the American Athletic one apiece. It’s been an embarrassing nearly two decades for a Big Ten Conference that considers itself superior to at least two teams on that list, and on a level playing field with the others.
At his press conference on Sunday, Beilein downplayed the notion Michigan has been saddled with the additional pressure of carrying an entire conference’s burden into what will already be the biggest game any of his players have ever played in.
“The Big Ten would love to win another one,” Beilein said. “But it’s not like any of us are saying, well, Big Ten is not very good. We haven’t won a national championship. The Big Ten is as strong as any league is out there. The breaks haven’t gone our way.
“I’m not carrying that weight on our back. It’s not always the best team, it’s the team that had a few breaks along the way. The Big Ten has had some tough breaks along the way between our (2013) Louisville game, (2015) Wisconsin game — could have gone either way. We could have had two more.”
A Michigan win would leave the championship drought stigma solely with the Pac-12, and more broadly, the West Coast. Neither has produced title team since Arizona cut down the nets in 1997.
3. Villanova’s program taking a powerful step forward
Villanova is one win away from having an entire offseason dedicated to dealing with the type of unanswerable questions you love seeing lobbed at your favorite team.
Is Villanova the best program in college basketball at the present time?
Is this the best five-year run in modern college basketball history?
Are we on the brink of a Villanova “dynasty?”
With its win over Texas Tech in the Elite Eight, Villanova already set a new record for the most wins by a single program over a four-year span. If they defeat Michigan on Monday, they will complete a five-year stretch where their total record was an astounding 165-21. Over those five years, the Wildcats have not once lost back-to-back games, and haven’t been seeded worse than second in the NCAA tournament.
The only strike against Jay Wright and Co., of course, is the fact that in three of those five years the Wildcats haven’t made it out of the first weekend of the Big Dance. Winning the whole thing in the other two years would go a long way towards cushioning that blow.
While the “dynasty” talk might be a bit premature, a second championship in three years would certainly lay the foundation for a reasonable discussion in the future. It would also firmly establish the Wildcats as the force to be reckoned with in college basketball at the present time, and would squash any talk of the program being the super power America loves to sleep on.