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Michigan Wolverines vs. Villanova Wildcats Prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview

Michigan Wolverines vs. Villanova Wildcats Prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview

Wolverines, Wildcats meet in San Antonio nearly four years after another NCAA Tournament showdown

Michigan heads into its South Region Sweet 16 matchup against Villanova aiming for an outcome different from the last time the Wolverines and Wildcats met in San Antonio.

The 2018 NCAA Tournament culminated with Villanova claiming its second national championship in three seasons, routing Michigan at the Final Four in the Alamodome.

While Jay Wright remains at the helm of VU, pursuing his third national title, much about this meeting is different this time: different players, a different venue in San Antonio, and a different head coach at Michigan.

Juwan Howard came into his third season heading up his alma mater with lofty expectations. Struggles against a demanding non-conference schedule put the Wolverines in a hole, and after Howard was suspended for a postgame confrontation with Wisconsin counterpart Greg Gard in February, Michigan appeared headed for an NIT bid at best.

But landing on the right side of the bubble, the Wolverines have maximized their opportunity. A third Final Four in nine years is just two wins away, offering the hope of turning a disappointing season into a memorable one.

"There wasn't really any doubt that this team is special," senior guard Eli Brooks said in the postgame press conference following Michigan's Round of 32 victory over 3-seed Tennessee. "That starts with our coach believing in us and just the group of guys that are in the locker room. We have a good group of guys that have the same drive, the same passion. And that's a credit to Juwan, the coaching staff, finding those guys out there that you like to be around."

Villanova, meanwhile, came into 2021-22 tabbed as a top-10 team and has fulfilled that promise throughout the campaign. The Wildcats are peaking at the right time, riding a seven-game winning streak that includes a Big East Tournament championship and double-digit-point wins in each of the first two rounds.

Stifling defense has been Villanova's M.O., including in a second-round win over Michigan's chief rival, Ohio State.

"They had a stretch where they were hitting shot after shot, and we just said attitude, stuck together and came together on the defensive end and told each other, let's get this next stop, let's get this next stop and tried to make the next play," Wildcats senior guard Collin Gillespie said in Sunday's postgame press conference.

South Region: No. 11 Michigan (19-14) vs. No. 2 Villanova (28-7)

Time: Thursday, March 26 at 7:29 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Center (San Antonio)
Spread: Villanova -5 

Keys for Michigan

Prevailing sentiment in recent years suggests a team can only go as far as its guard play takes it. But in beating Tennessee, Michigan flourished with big-man dominance reminiscent of a time when centers like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Chris Webber — in the house for the second round — carried teams deep in the Big Dance.

Hunter Dickinson was a monster on the interior, setting the tone with his rebounding and repeated key baskets. Dickinson went right at Tennessee's 7-footer Uros Plavsic with success and will need to repeat the performance matched up against a smaller Villanova frontcourt.

Villanova's Jermaine Samuels is an unafraid banger on the interior but gives up considerable size to Dickinson. Expect Michigan to attack down low early.

Keys for Villanova

Villanova's 3-point shooting is among the best in college basketball, and the triples were falling at a staggering pace against Ohio State.

"I've shot thousands of threes in practice this year and by myself in the gym," sophomore forward Eric Dixon said of his near-50 percent pace against the Buckeyes. "My teammates expect me to make the shot when I shoot it, so I raised up and shot it."

The Wildcats rank in the top 25 of all Div. I teams for both percentage of 3-pointers accounting for all field-goal attempts, and point distributions from 3-point range via Gillespie is a reliable sniper and Caleb Daniels has hit just below 40 percent, but the sudden emergence of Dixon as a long-range threat just makes Villanova all the more dangerous.

Final Analysis

The good news for Michigan for this Alamo rematch with Villanova: Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson are now in the NBA. Bad news? The Wildcats' backcourt is still loaded with playmakers, namely the one-two punch of Gillespie, the Big East Player of the Year, and Justin Moore. 

Villanova has a variety of ways to score and stretch the Michigan defense, opening the floor to get better looks as the game goes on. Combine that with a tough defensive approach typical of a Wright-coached team, and the Wildcats are built to move onto the Elite Eight.

Prediction: Villanova 69, Michigan 63 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing.