There’s any number of reasons Jay Wright has Villanova back in the NCAA championship game and going for its second title in three years against Michigan tonight, after the Wildcats disposed of shell-shocked Kansas 95-79 in the Final Four national semifinal late Saturday night in San Antonio.
And while their defense and rebounding are beyond dispute and they can move the ball and find the open man better than anybody, the key to their success really comes down to one basic thing: Math.
Never was that more apparent than watching Nova systematically take apart the Jayhawks, who offered only sporadic resistance once the Wildcats broke out of the gates 22-4 in the first seven minutes. Each time Kansas tried to muster a rally with a layup or short jumper, Villanova had the answer. And more times than not it was worth three points, as the 35-4 Cats not only shattered the Final Four single game record with 18 3-pointers, but passed VMI for the all-time mark in a season. They’re now at 454 — and counting.
Somewhere along the way, Wright figured out that making a bunch of threes was more beneficial than all the layups in the world. When you factor in the kind of stifling defense Nova plays across the board, but particularly in the interior with Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall, it means getting behind Villanova will usually prove fatal.
“Obviously we’re very talented offensively,” said All-America guard and AP Player of the Year, Jalen Brunson, one of seven Cats to drain treys against the helpless Jayhawks, who were nowhere near the team that knocked off Duke for the Midwest championship. “We have a lot of weapons, but when it comes to us staying together on defense, that’s what makes it special. We’re going to keep getting better and keep getting better tomorrow and be ready for Monday.”
That’s what John Beilein’s Wolverines will be up against after Michigan burst media darling Sister Jean and her Loyola of Chicago’s bubble, 69-57 in Saturday’s opener. Loyola made just one trey against the Wolverines, who weren’t all that efficient themselves, shooting just 42.4 percent, only 25 percent beyond the arc.
It’s Michigan’s second time in the title game in the last six years, the Wolverines falling to Louisville 82-76 in 2013. For Villanova, going for its second crown in the last three years, this will be the fourth time in the Big Game.
But you’ll only find three in the record books. Jack Kraft’s1971 team’s appearance was vacated following their 68-62 loss to UCLA when it was subsequently discovered star Howard Porter had secretly signed a contract with the ABA Pittsburgh Condors during the season.
The Wildcats made it back in 1985 when Rollie Massimino’s Cats stunned heavily favored Georgetown, led by Patrick Ewing, 66-64 for the school’s first title. Along the way, they pulled a early surprise, upsetting Southeast Region top seed Michigan, 59-55 in the second round.
That’s the only time they’ve ever met in the tournament and this will be only their fifth time they’ve gone head-to-head, Nova’s 60-55 early season win in 2014 giving them a 3-1 advantage. Of course, none of that will mean a thing Monday night in the Alamodome, where Villanova dispelled the common theory teams just don’t shoot well in such a setting, going a gaudy 18-for-25, 72 percent on two-point attempts, to go with their blistering 18-for-40, 45 percent from long distance.
Chances are they’ll cool off a bit against a 33-7 Michigan team that needed Jordan Poole’s 3-point buzzer beating prayer to get past Houston in the second round. The Wolverines have been on a roll since, largely thanks to their rugged defense and the inside play of center Mo Wagner.
But they’re no “Fab Five,” with a Chris Webber or Jalen Rose, meaning Michigan usually has to beat you with its physical play and grinding defense. It worked against teams like UCLA, Purdue and Michigan State twice, but Villanova is a different breed of Cat. The Wildcats can do much more than shoot the rock, their defense holding opponents to just 42.8 percent, while hitting 50.1 percent themselves. More telling is the 3-point disparity, 454-269, which accounts for a whopping 86.8-70.4 point differential.
“We’ve had some good ones, but this is definitely our best offensive team,” said Wright said following Nova’s 28th double digit latest win, 23 of them by at least 15 points. “We shoot them up and we sleep in the street. Sometimes they go in. Sometimes they don’t. This is one of those nights where everything went in.”
For Villanova that’s been the rule this season rather than the exception. Tonight, taking nothing for granted, they go for all knowing full well one thing: The math favors them.