Detroit News writers Bob Wojnowski, Matt Charboneau and James Hawkins break down the national championship game.
San Antonio — Good vs. great.
No, check that. Pretty doggone good vs. great.
That was Michigan vs. Villanova on Monday night in the national-championship game. The 79-62 victory for the Wildcats — their second title in three seasons — was validation for one of the most complete college basketball teams in recent memory.
It was hardly an indictment on the Wolverines, who won a program-record 33 games in a season that included a Big Ten tournament championship.
What the loss did show was that, simply, Michigan didn’t have the horses. Even a near-perfect game from most of the players in the rotation might have given the Wolverines a chance, but the margin for error was razor thin.
When Muhammad-Ali Abdur Rahkman and Duncan Robinson were both forced to sit extended minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, there was no one there to step in and fill the void. Jordan Poole was 1-for-5, Isaiah Livers didn’t score in 20 minutes and even Charles Matthews — as steady as anyone during the Wolverines’ tournament run — was ineffective, scoring just six points before fouling out.
In stark contrast, when national player of the year Jalen Brunson failed to reach double figures in scoring for the first time all season and Mikal Bridges struggled in the first half, Villanova turned to sixth-man Donte DiVincenzo. All the sophomore did was score a career-high 31 points, including 18 in the first half.
“He was making a lot of 3’s,” Abdur-Rahkman said of DiVincenzo. “Anytime you get into a rhythm like that, where you can pull up from anywhere and just knock them down it's tough to stop. You're always on your heels defensively because you never know what he's going to do — either shoot, pull up and shoot the three or drive to the basket. It's tough when you see shots go in like that for him.”
Those shots were enough to get the Wildcats out of a first-half hole and grab a nine-point lead at halftime.
By the time the teams came out of the locker room for the second half, the Wildcats were in an offensive rhythm. Bridges scored 15 of his 19 in the final 20 minutes as Villanova finished 10-for-27 from 3-point range after making one of its first nine attempts. All seven players in the regular rotation scored for the Wildcats, who scored 1.162 points per possession.
In other words, there weren’t a lot of holes out there, something coach Jay Wright started to realize during a tournament run that included six wins all by 12 points or more.
“I knew we were good, but you don't think we can win this,” Wright said. “After the West Virginia game (in the Sweet 16), I knew we had a shot. You get into the mindset, ‘Don't screw this up; you've got a really good team here, really good kids. You've got a shot.’ And on the other side, it's a constant struggle, don't screw this up and then don't be afraid to fail.”
There wasn’t a whole lot of failure for the Wildcats. They lost just four games all season, have the nation’s top player and at least a couple of future NBA players without a single one-and-done on the roster.
As good as Michigan was this season, it wasn’t that. And pulling off a win on Monday night would have qualified as a significant upset.
That’s not to say the Wolverines don’t have a lot of the right pieces, the most important being the man in charge, coach John Beilein. And there’s no reason to think they can’t be in the same position next season with a far better shot to win the program’s second championship.
A lot depends on the decisions of Mortiz Wagner and Charles Matthews, who will both contemplate moves to the NBA. And even with the departure of Abdur-Rahkman and Robinson, the development of Zavier Simpson, Livers and Poole doesn’t stop. Add in a recruiting class that ranks No. 10 in the nation according to Rivals.com and there doesn’t appear to be any lull coming in Ann Arbor.
It doesn’t take away the sting of getting to the title game and coming up short, just as the Wolverines did in 2013.
“It hurts more than anything,” Poole said. “That is March Madness for you – an emotional roller coaster. You either go super high and if you don’t win it all, you are at your lowest point.”
It felt like that in the immediate aftermath for most of the Wolverines, however, they understood what they were up against.
“We lost to a team that was better than us,” Beilein said. “They’d win a lot of Final Fours with the way they’re coached, the way they conduct themselves. We’re not gonna hang our heads, we’re gonna move on, learn from it, and really cherish all the memories from the season.”
The next time the Wolverines get here — something that seems likely — those memories just might include winning the last game.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson talk after Michigan's loss to Villanova on Monday. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit New