Villanova, Pa. — Seven months ago, freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis watched helplessly from afar as Michigan’s national title hopes were dashed at the hands of Villanova in the championship game.
One could argue that game had nothing to do with him. He wasn’t part of the team. He wasn’t on the bench. He wasn’t in the crowd or anywhere remotely near the Alamodome in San Antonio that night.
But one could argue it had everything to do with him. He felt like he was part of the journey. He felt the pain and anguish of a team that had gone so far only to come up short. The loss cut deep and stuck with him like a bad memory he couldn’t shake.
“When I saw them lose that hurt me so bad,” Brazdeikis said. “Knowing I had a chance to play them, I was going to give it my all.”
Fast forward to Wednesday night, when Brazdeikis walked into a hornet’s nest at the newly renovated and jam-packed Finneran Pavilion in the first big-time game of his Michigan career.
Undaunted and unfazed by the national spotlight and rowdy environment, Brazdeikis stayed true to his word and helped No. 18 Michigan exact some revenge in a thorough dismantling of No. 8 Villanova, 73-46, Wednesday in the Gavitt Tipoff Games.
He made his presence felt from the get-go and showed he can rise above tough competition, throwing down an emphatic putback dunk roughly three minutes into the game with a little added flair. He later scored on another putback while being fouled and flexed as he fell to the court.
Then early in the second half, he muscled his way into the lane, flipped up a shot through contact and pumped his fist triumphantly as it went in. It was the first of his 11 second-half points — and of Michigan’s 29 total points over the final 20 minutes.
By the end of it, he racked up 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting, seven rebounds and two steals in what ended up being one of the most lopsided losses in coach Jay Wright’s 18-year career at Villanova.
“I like that shining moment, I looked forward to this,” Brazdeikis said. “I had this game circled on my schedule since Day 1. I'm not going to shy away from anything. I'm always mentally prepared. I feel like I'm mentally bulletproof and I'm going to just come in and play my game.”
Before the game even started, Brazdeikis showed he wasn’t going to let the reigning national champs intimidate him or his teammates. As pregame warm-ups were wrapping up and the Wildcats came down to their side of the court, a Villanova player bumped sophomore guard Jordan Poole and words were exchanged. Brazdeikis quickly joined the fray before the two groups were separated for the national anthem.
Then with roughly 13 minutes left in the game, junior guard Zavier Simpson stripped the ball away from Villanova’s Collin Gillespie and got tied up with big man Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who gave him a shove. The Wolverines quickly rushed to Simpson’s defense, with Brazdeikis offering a shove back to Cosby-Roundtree.
“That's the kind of team that we are. We're not going to back down from anybody,” Brazdeikis said. “They tried to clown us in the beginning when they just stood in front of us and we were like, 'What? Who do you guys think you are?' We're not going to back down from anybody. During the game, they pushed X, we all came in and pushed back. We're not going to take a step back.”
Rather, Michigan and Brazdeikis dug in and stood their ground, especially on the defensive end. Brazdeikis (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) was tasked with guarding fifth-year senior forward Eric Paschall (6-8, 255), a preseason All-Big East first team selection.
Villanova isolated Paschall on its second possession and went right at Brazdeikis. But the youngster moved his feet, took the hit and drew a charge, sending a message he was up for the physical challenge.
“Many players come in as freshman, they aren't ready to do that or it wears them out so much they can't do anything at the offensive end,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “His endurance and his toughness were outstanding.”
Paschall attacked Brazdeikis again and again, only to be greeted by Brazdeikis’ chest every time he tried to drive. Paschall didn’t have much to show for it, finishing with 10 points on 3-for-14 shooting and three turnovers.
“We don't let Iggy take no plays off,” redshirt junior wing Charles Matthews said. “He's an extremely talented player and we don't want him to back off on any parts of his game.
“The one thing about Iggy is he has pride and I think that's half the battle with defense right there. Zavier has pride, I have pride, and I think that allows us to compete. Iggy was able to play good because he was ready to compete at the big stage.”
Ready for over seven months, to be exact.