It was a tough way to go out. Michigan battled, played extremely well defensively, stayed with second-seeded Villanova all night. But as hard as they played, the Wolverines could never quite catch the Cats. Could never quite get their shots to fall. When the final horn sounded, Michigan found itself on the wrong end of a 63-55 final score, ending its tournament run and its season.
Villanova is one of the best coached and most efficient offensive teams in the country. If you’ve seen the Wildcats play, you understand why. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson described the Cats as a more disciplined version of Iowa, and he wasn’t altogether wrong. Both Iowa and Villanova use a lot of ball movement and feature free-flowing offensive sets. Villanova, though, rarely breaks from form. Watching Villanova play, the fluidity of its offense jumps out at you. The ball is constantly moving. Players seem to see things one pass ahead. The Wildcats have a host of players capable of knocking down threes and their offense generates ample opportunities for them to do just that. All of this makes the Cats a difficult team to defend.
But Michigan was up to the challenge. The Wolverines guarded both the ball and the perimeter aggressively throughout the game and kept the Wildcats from operating as freely as they’re accustomed to doing. Michigan’s shots may not have been falling, but the Wolverines never stopped battling defensively.
After the game, I told Michigan head coach Juwan Howard as much, that I thought his team battled all night before asking him how he assessed his team’s defensive performance. “We’ve battled all season long,” Howard was quick to point out, adding, “This is why I’m so damn proud of this group.” Howard went on to say that he felt this was one of the Wolverines’ better defensive efforts of the season, particularly considering the opponent. “You look at the numbers,” Howard said. “They (Villanova) shot 37% from the field. 30% from three. That says a lot about how hard we played defensively.”
And he was right. Michigan limited the number of clean looks that Villanova got, especially from deep. Made Villanova work for everything. But when the Cats did get good looks, they made good on them.
For Michigan, it was another story. And that was the story of the game. For as hard as Michigan played, the Wolverines just couldn’t get their shots to fall.
Credit Villanova, because the Cats were also locked in defensively. Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Villanova wanted to push Michigan outside of its comfort zone, and it was generally successful doing so. But Michigan had its chances, and when it did, the shots just wouldn’t fall.
DeVante Jones’ drives to the basket. Eli Brooks’ floaters and midrange jumpers. Dickinson’s shots in the paint. Shots that have fallen all year - shots that have been the bread and butter of Michigan’s offense - just wouldn’t fall Thursday. This was especially true in the paint, where the Wolverines missed an astonishing 17 of 29 lay-up or dunk attempts.
Wright talked about how well coached Michigan is, and in particular, how precisely their offense operates. “They have great timing offensively,” Wright said. “Hunter Dickinson is used to getting the ball at certain spots at specific times on his cuts.” Villanova’s goal, Wright explained, was to try to disrupt Michigan’s timing.
There were times when this tactic was effective, times when Dickinson rushed his shot a bit. This was the case on Dickinson’s lone three-point attempt of the night. But Michigan’s big man also showed patience throughout the game. Dickinson repeatedly found his way to the basket, often splitting double-teams to do so, only to miss at the rim. Dickinson led Michigan with 15 points and 15 rebounds, but made only six of 16 shots - with more than half of those ten misses coming at the rim.
Dickinson was asked after the game if Villanova did something special to get him out of his rhythm, or if there was anything else that affected his normal level of success around the basket. Dickinson offered no excuses, and responded, “I think it just wasn’t our night out there.”
In the NCAA tournament, of course, one off night is all it takes. And with its loss, Michigan’s season comes to an end. But while Michigan’s season may have ended a little earlier than it had hoped, it lasted longer than many had predicted. A team that went into Selection Sunday unsure of which side of the bubble it would fall, a team that was criticized by some for being included in the tournament at all, proved it belonged by advancing to the Sweet Sixteen and giving the region’s second seed all it could handle.
Not that any of that will make Howard and his Wolverines feel much better. Not on a night they let so many points - and the opportunity to advance to the Elite Eight - slip away.