I pulled together the SB Nation sites for the teams participating in the Final Four to break down the matchups and give everyone a one stop shop for learning about these teams. This is part two of a five part series that started Wednesday night and runs through Friday.
Up next, we look at what makes the teams in the Final Four so great.
Editor’s Note: I’m joined on this panel by Anthony Broome from Maize and Brew, Jack Brooks from VU Hoops, and Russell Steinberg from Mid Major Madness. If you missed the previous installment in this series, you can find it here:
Let’s get to know these teams a bit better. What is the one trait that defines your team?
AB: Surprisingly, or perhaps not if people have watched Michigan Basketball all season long, is that they are winning with defense. This has traditionally been a “live by the three, die by the three” program under John Beilein, but they are not only just getting enough on the defensive end, they are actually deciding games on that side of the court. When their offense is on like it was against Texas A&M, there may not be a team in the country that can beat them, and we are about to see that play out this weekend.
RS: Maybe this is a cop-out, but what strikes me is how well coached this team is. You can see it on offense in the half-court. Every set they run is with purpose and there appears to be 2-3 options to adjust to whatever the defense might do. And it helps that the Ramblers have the personnel — three-point shooters like Custer/Ingram/Richardson and a capable big in Cameron Krutwig.
JB: Villanova is a well-oiled machine. It’s become kind of a joke within the fanbase, but Jon Rothstein is right on with his Fortune 500 comparisons. Even when shots aren’t falling, this team never loses its composure and is ready to capitalize on any mistakes the other team makes, and is incredibly well balanced (six players average ten points or more). They only lost one game at full strength this year, and that was to Butler by 8 at Hinkle, with Butler making 68% of its threes. Unless a team is molten hot like that in the Final Four, Villanova can hang with anyone.
AM: Toughness. It’s funny to say that given the number of times that Bill Self has called this team soft, but every time this team has hit a huge obstacle, whether it was Billy Preston not playing in a single game, Slivio De Sousa trying to figure out how to play at the college level after being in high school 3 months ago, or the various slumps by Lagerald Vick, Malik Newman, Devonte Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, they have found a way to overcome and keep pushing forward. When Udoka Azubuike went down with a knee injury just before the Big 12 tournament, Mitch Lightfoot and De Sousa stepped up in a big way, and Newman flipped the switch. After this season, I don’t have any concerns about a deficit being impossible to overcome.
What one player is most important to your team’s success?
AB: This is a difficult question to answer because it truly has been a team effort without a true bonafide superstar, but it may be point guard Zavier Simpson. Beilein teams generally go as their point guards do and he is playing as well as he possibly can, especially on the defensive end. He is an eraser and also one of the craftiest passers in college basketball.
RS: Overall, it’s Custer. He sets the whole thing in motion and is the leader on and off the court. It’s easy to just pick the team’s point guard and conference player of the year, but it’s true. If Michigan opens up on a run on Saturday, or the stage seems a little too big, he’s going to be the guy who settles the team down.
JB: Jalen Brunson may be the (likely) national player of the year, but Mikal Bridges is our most important player. Bridges consistently guards the best opposing wing and shoots the lights out when he’s hot. The Alabama game is a perfect example of this. Bridges struggled in the first half, and the Wildcats only led by 5 going into the break. As soon as the second half started, Bridges found his rhythm and scored 14 points as part of an 18-1 run and the game was over from there. Villanova can win without him, but they’re even more difficult to beat with him.
AM: This is really hard to answer (and I’m the one who came up with the questions), but just given the recent games, I’m going to have to go with Malik Newman. He has completely gone off on offense, and his defense hasn’t fallen off a single bit. Whenever we need a bit shot, he seems to deliver. And his emergence has allowed Devonte Graham to slide into the floor general role that he is best suited for, picking his spots for himself very carefully and facilitating the other key playmakers in the best spots available.
Be sure to check back later today, when we each talk about the strengths of our opponents.