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Sports >  NCAA basketball

More than 3s: Villanova must move ball, rebound vs. Michigan

Villanova's Mikal Bridges laughs as he answers questions during a news conference Sunday for Monday’s championship game. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)
Villanova's Mikal Bridges laughs as he answers questions during a news conference Sunday for Monday’s championship game. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)
By Aaron Beard Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO – Villanova has made more 3-pointers than any team in NCAA Division I history and fittingly set a Final Four single-game record for made 3s to reach Monday’s national championship game.

It’s made the Wildcats clear favorites to beat Michigan for their second national championship in three seasons. And sure, their ability to keep hitting from outside – even if it isn’t at a record pace – against the Wolverines’ tough defense will play a big role in reaching that goal.

Yet there’s more beyond the obvious glow from all those deep shots. They’ll have to do a better job rebounding than they did in some of their few losses. And they’ll have to keep the ball moving while racking up assists with a deep well of shooters on the ready, something they’ve done nearly all year.

“It’s very good – we’ve been very unselfish this year,” redshirt junior guard Phil Booth said Sunday. “We know, always look for the best shot. Not taking too many 3s is what we’ve been doing a good job of. … And when we get a lot of assists, good things happen.”

Villanova (35-4) is atop KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency at 127.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s better than any team other than Wisconsin in 2015 (129.0) dating back to the 2002 season.

They’ll face a tough challenge against a Michigan defense ranked third by KenPom (90.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) and hoping for an uglier game compared to Villanova’s free-flowing romp against Kansas in Saturday’s national semifinals.

Villanova kept the ball moving – sometimes whipping it around the perimeter, other times on drive-and-kickout plays – to stay a step ahead of the Jayhawks’ befuddled defense, which left coach Bill Self in a perpetual state of exasperation through what became a 40-minute shooting show.

By the end, Villanova had assisted on 12 of its Final Four-record 18 3-pointers, and finished the game with 20 assists on 36 baskets.

“It just gets everybody touches, everybody staying aggressive,” redshirt junior Mikal Bridges said. “It’s kind of tough for maybe a guy throughout the whole game not touching the ball at all. You’re just not going to be ready. It’s just normal.

“But touching the ball every possession and moving without the ball, then when it swings to you and you’re open or have to make a play, everybody has confidence in each other to make that play and find each other.”

The assist-to-basket ratio can offer a glimpse of how well things are working for the Wildcats. They have assisted on 55.6 percent of their baskets in wins, but just 42.6 percent in their four losses – including 39.3 percent in a loss to St. John’s on Feb. 7 and 34.6 percent in a loss to Providence a week later.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Villanova struggled from outside in both of those games in particular. The Wildcats made 2 of 18 3-pointers in the second half of the loss to the Red Storm, then made 3 of 20 for the game against the Friars.

The other thing to watch will be rebounding. Villanova was beaten on the glass in in three of its four losses, with Butler, St. John’s and Providence offsetting misses by combining to average 13.7 second-chance points.

Yet Villanova’s work on the glass on a bad shooting day, along with a tough defensive effort, is why the Wildcats reached San Antonio. Villanova shot just 33 percent and went 4 of 24 from 3-point range in the Elite Eight win against Texas Tech, but took a 51-33 rebounding advantage that included 20 offensive rebounds.

It’s proof that Villanova can win even if those shots aren’t falling.

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