Whether you expected it or not, Michigan is back in the Final Four for the first time since 2013. The Wolverines have defeated Montana, Houston, Texas A&M, and Florida State to make it to San Antonio. While this might not sound like the most arduous road, March Madness is wild, and to win four games against any teams in the field is impressive.
Think of all the teams that came into this year with high expectations that didn’t make it this far. Duke, Michigan St., and Arizona were all preseason favorites that didn’t sniff the Final Four. Arizona and Michigan St. didn’t even make it out of the first weekend. Virginia, the consensus No. 1 seed, was blown out by UMBC (a 16 seed). The point is, March Madness is a crazy and unpredictable tournament; so reaching the Final Four is an incredible milestone no matter the circumstances.
Winning the NCAA tournament is straight out of hell. You have 6 games between 3 different cities, but if you play a bad one night, it’s a flash and then boom.. your season is over. People don’t grasp that it’s the hardest title to win in sports.
— ✖️isaiah!✖️| 4️⃣5️⃣ (@FourWitTheFive) March 26, 2018
Now, many will call Michigan’s run so far lucky, or benefiting from not playing any blue bloods. While they were lucky to avoid North Carolina and Xavier out of the West Region, they still defeated the teams who upset the aforementioned teams. Admittedly, Michigan has only played its best in 1 out of 4 games so far, but if anything that should be chilling to their remaining opponents. Michigan hasn’t played its best, yet here we are.
Michigan showed some rust but eventually fought off a bad Montana team. After that, they had a down to the wire thriller with criminally under-seeded Houston. And again, I’ll never get tired of showing Jordan Poole’s game-winner:
JORDAN POOLE FOR THE WIN pic.twitter.com/oIyDXJ3ZgW
— Michigan Sports Zone (@MichSportsZone) March 18, 2018
After surviving Houston, Michigan throttled Texas A&M in one of the most lopsided games of the tournament thus far. This was the one game where Michigan truly played well in all facets. In the Elite 8, Michigan fought off the stingy, upset-minded Seminoles to earn a trip to San Antonio. Let’s delve a little deeper and see what have been the keys to Michigan’s run so far.
Defense, Defense, and More Defense
This Michigan team does not fit the mold of a typical John Beilein team. They aren’t dependent on the 3, and they don’t view defense as an afterthought.
In the NCAA Tournament, Michigan held Montana to its worst offensive outing of the year, Houston to its fourth-worst, and FSU to its worst. And Texas A&M? They lost by 27.
— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) March 25, 2018
As Drew Hallet stated above, Michigan’s defense has been unreal this season. The typical Beilein mold has been shoot first, ask questions (on defense) later. However, another important facet of what makes Beilein a great coach, he admitted his shortcomings this year with the hire of Luke Yaklich. Beilein gave Yaklich the keys to the defense this season, and boy has it paid off.
According to KenPom, Michigan ranks 4th in adjusted defensive efficiency. This is by far the highest of any John Beilein-led team. The last one of his teams to rank in the top 40 in adjusted defensive efficiency was, you guessed it, the 2013 team.
Michigan has held its opponents to 59 ppg and a meager 37% from the field in its 4 games so far. The defense all starts with Zavier Simpson. His ability to neutralize the opponent’s primary ball handler is huge. And trust me, this is not a fluke. Simpson has been hounding opposing guards all season long since he took control of the starting job. In the postseason alone he has shut down Cassius Winston, Carsen Edwards, Rob Gray, and TJ Starks. In those 4 games, Simpson has held his counterparts to a paltry 28.8% from the field.
The defense goes beyond Simpson though. Charles Matthews is a lock-down defender. Isaiah Livers has sacrificed his offensive contributions to be a stalwart on defense, especially in rebounding. MAAR has been solid, and even Duncan Robinson is much improved. The only relative weak spot in the defense is Wagner. His propensity for picking up stupid fouls is troubling and mitigates his offensive capabilities at times.
John Beilein on Mo Wagner
“Don’t give him too much credit. He still has some of the dumbest fouls I’ve ever seen. And he’s so important to us. And I’ve got to find a German way to tell him that fouling is stupid. So, maybe out there somebody can tweet that to me.”
— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) March 2, 2018
If Michigan can continue to play stifling defense in San Antonio, they will have a great shot at winning the title.
The beauty of Michigan’s offense (if you can find beauty in a team’s that’s averaged only 70.5 ppg in the tournament), is that it’s not reliant on just one guy. It’s not like Michigan teams of old who relied on Trey Burke, Caris Levert, or Derrick Walton Jr. to carry the offense. Now, that’s not to say they’re “win-by-committee” like Florida St. either. It’s pretty clear that Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Moe Wagner are the go-to scorers. MAAR’s unparalleled ability to finish at the rim and Wagner’s ability to stretch the defense are two major facets of the offense.
That’s not to say that Michigan relies on these two guys, however. Let’s go back to the Round of 32 games against Houston. The play that produced Poole’s glory shot was actually drawn up for Rahkman. Michigan actually ran the exact same play against Maryland down the stretch. In that situation, Rahkman was fouled and hit two clutch free throws to beat Maryland. His willingness to pass to Poole, however, is indicative of the balance Michigan boasts on the offensive end.
Another great example is Michigan’s play down the stretch against Florida State. With the game on the line, the ball was not forced to MAAR or Wagner. Instead, Simpson beat his man 1v1 for the easy deuce. On the very next possession, Simpson again beat his man and kicked it to Duncan Robinson for the dagger 3.
Another telling stat of Michigan’s offensive balance? They are 28-0 when Duncan Robinson scores 6 or more. It’s not just one guy that carries the load. Charles Matthews was virtually invisible in the latter stages of the Big Ten season. He’s now averaging 16.8 ppg in the NCAA Tournament. Jordan Poole went from being the hero against Houston to playing 2 minutes against FSU.
The maturity and unselfishness on the offensive end have certainly contributed to Michigan’s success so far.
Swagger and the Desire to Win
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s just a different feel to this Michigan team. If you would’ve told me at the beginning of the season that this Michigan team would have the most wins in school history (32 and counting), I would’ve called you crazy. Now, however, it doesn’t look all that crazy.
The growth and maturity of this team is a testament to the great coaching staff Beilein has assembled. This team looks completely different from the identity-less team that put up 51 in horrid performance at Northwestern. They’re a world away from their blowout loss to Nebraska early in the Big Ten season. The unselfishness of this team and the willingness to sacrifice for one another has elevated this team to the next level.
Now, it’s great that this team has bonded over the course of the season, but the thing that sets them apart is their fire. Sure everyone wants to win, but have you ever seen a Michigan team this in tune with their emotions? Wagner produces elite facial reactions on a daily basis. Jordan Poole throws up gang signs and dances on the bench. The bench goes crazy for a walk-on’s chance in the spotlight.
What a moment for @baird_cj. Started as a student manager and turned into a walk-on as a freshman this season. Can now say that he made a three-pointer in the Sweet 16. The bench’s reaction makes it so much better, too. pic.twitter.com/YCOEmA1gUi
— Josh Poloha (@JorshP) March 23, 2018
The swagger of this team is unmatched. John Beilein even admitted it. For an under-the-radar, calm and collected coach such as Beilein, his Wolverines sure are playing with a championship-level passion to succeed.
So there you have it. Michigan’s defensive prowess, offensive balance, and “overdose of swagger” have been the keys to their tournament run so far. If they can continue to execute at a high level and put these three things into practice, we could see a 3rd banner being raised this year in Crisler.