NCAA Final Live Stream: A national championship game is typically no place for a David-vs.-Goliath story. The last two teams standing are usually among the very best and, roughly, equals.
That first truism remains accurate: Top-seeded Villanova (35-4), the Big East champion, and third-seeded Michigan (33-7), the Big Ten champion, are both among the best teams in college basketball. But equals? Hardly.
While only a fool or a gambler — if there is a difference — should be in the business of making predictions, it seems fair to cast the 2018 Division I men’s title game on Monday night as one with a prohibitive favorite and a fairly significant underdog.
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Start with Michigan. They play an immensely appealing style of basketball, both on offense — elegant cuts from the perimeter, bully-ball down low — and defense, where they were one of the very best teams this year. Their coach, John Beilein, has a Hall of Fame résumé, and is coaching in his second title game in six seasons. Also, it’s Michigan. Plainly the Wolverines’ presence is no fluke.
But this team got here by the seat of its pants. In the regular season, the Wolverines’ record against teams that went on to make the N.C.A.A. tournament was 3-4. It’s no wonder that they received the fifth seed in their conference tournament, granting them only a single bye. (As a result, Michigan could become just the second champion to play 41 games, following Connecticut in 2011.)
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Like last year, when the scare of a plane mishap en route to the Big Ten tournament helped inspired a championship run, they turned it on during this year’s conference tournament, winning four games in four days. Then came the N.C.A.A. tournament, and here they are.
But in getting here, Michigan was compelled to defeat teams with the following seeds: No. 14; No. 6; No. 7; No. 9; No. 11. Not exactly a murderers’ row. And while some of its wins were authoritative, others were close, such as the second-round game against Houston won on Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beater, or Saturday night’s gritted-out victory over No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.
This is a fine model for March: survive and advance. “If you win a Big Ten championship in any way, then you can win a national championship,” Beilein said last week. “But after that, it’s about breaks, and anything can happen.”
But now look at the other corner. Villanova is a giant. On Saturday night, its least-heralded major contributor, Eric Paschall, a junior, had 24 points and three rebounds in 29 minutes. The Wildcats’ point guard, Jalen Brunson, is the consensus national player of the year. Mikal Bridges, a forward — though he can play like a guard and has the wingspan of a center — is expected to be taken in the N.B.A. draft in June with a lottery pick. Their big freshman, Omari Spellman, shoots 3-pointers like they were seven-foot hook shots.
The seeds they beat to get here? Nos. 16, 9, 5, 3 and 1. In two of those games, the Wildcats won by 12; in the others, they won by more.
“We don’t pride ourselves on shooting the ball well,” Spellman said after Saturday’s 95-79 humiliation of Kansas in the semifinal. “We pride ourselves on defending and rebounding, and that’s our true measure of success in playing Villanova basketball.”
In terms of Xs and Os, this is a compelling matchup. Villanova accrues a greater share of its baskets from 3-point range than nearly every other college basketball team. Michigan’s opponents score fewer of its points from 3-point range than nearly every other college basketball team, according to KenPom.com.
Going into the Loyola game, Michigan’s coaches spoke of the importance of limiting the Ramblers’ 2-point shooting percentage because they took it almost as a given that they would be successful at stopping them from deep — it is what Michigan does.
So, despite the fact that, as Kansas Coach Bill Self said of Villanova Saturday night: “They’d be hard for anybody to deal with if they shoot the ball like that” — “that” being 18-for-40 from 3-point range — it is likely the Wildcats won’t shoot the ball like that Monday against Michigan.
Then again, in their round-of-eight game versus Texas Tech — like Michigan, a No. 3 seed — the Wildcats made just four of 24 three-point attempts. It did not matter. They outrebounded Texas Tech, a physical Big 12 team, 51-33. They got to the free-throw line, and made 29 of 35 foul shots. They limited the Red Raiders to 33.3 percent from the field. With their dominant hand tied behind their back, they won comfortably, 71-59.
“It’s specifically gratifying to see 33 percent and outrebounding them in the biggest game so far,” Coach Jay Wright said after that game.
They may need a similar game against Michigan.
It may not be gorgeous. But gorgeous may no longer be what defines “Villanova basketball,” a phrase every Wright team learns to repeat robotically. And it may not specifically be “defending and rebounding,” as Spellman said, either. The characteristic that may most strongly correlate with Villanova basketball is winning.
Still, if the Wolverines end Monday night on top, nobody can deny that they faced the toughest of competition. So hail to the victors, whoever they are.