Michigan basketball beat Purdue on Sunday to win its second straight Big Ten Tournament title, and it’s all a bit familiar. The Wolverines are on a similar path to the one that led them to a surprise conference tournament title and Sweet 16 trip last year, but it’s not all the same this time around.
Michigan peaked at right time to win 2017 Big Ten Tournament
Last season, Michigan entered the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 8 seed, and it wasn’t even a sure thing to make the NCAA Tournament.
The unranked Wolverines finished 20-11 and 10-8 in Big Ten play. The Big Ten was deeper last season than it was this time around, but Michigan’s regular season left fans with some questions. The Wolverines surprised just about everyone with their run to the Big Ten Tournament title and Sweet 16.
The Michigan team that made its run to the 2017 Big Ten Tournament final relied on steady veterans and some younger players who came into their own at exactly the right time.
Derrick Walton was Michigan’s rock all season, but he reached another level in the team’s Big Ten Tournament run. He was aided by classmate and third-year starter Zak Irvin. The Wolverines’ senior guard had 29 points in the semifinals against Minnesota and 22 in the final against Wisconsin. D.J. Wilson emerged as a genuine star whose length and athleticism made him an NBA draft prospect as a sophomore, and fellow sophomore Moe Wagner emerged from obscurity to be a star in the front court.
They were excellent shooters who played a pleasing brand of basketball once they found their footing. KenPom’s efficiency ratings had Michigan’s offense as the No. 4 unit in the country and its defense as 69th. The Wolverines had nation’s the sixth-best effective field goal percentage and fourth-best turnover percentage. John Beilein’s team played slow (338rd in adjusted tempo), but they got buckets.
Michigan won second straight Big Ten Tournament with totally different makeup
This Michigan team is so fascinating because it doesn’t have that same blend of experience and NBA talent, but is making the same late-season push. Walton, Irvin and Wilson were replaced in the starting lineup with Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews, sophomore Zavier Simpson and senior Duncan Robinson. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman returned alongside Wagner, and increased his scoring output from 9 to 14 points per game. Wagner too increased his offensive production and became the team’s go-to threat, putting up 15 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Moritz Wagner is on fire. pic.twitter.com/mUqcrET5sl
— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) March 4, 2018
“We had extremely talented players last year that had really been through the process before,” Beilein told reporters on Sunday. “And so we let them lead. Now, we had all new leadership. The role players had to step up. And I think it wasn’t until we got almost ’til February that our coaching staff just figured out a little bit what we could do and what we could expect.”
The Wolverines are playing a totally different brand of basketball than they were last year, but they’re succeeding just the same. This year, Michigan has the seventh-best defense in the country and the 34th-best offense, per KenPom. Michigan’s effective field goal percentage went down from sixth to 48th, but the Wolverines are playing better now than they were this time last season.
Their overall KenPom ranking is ninth entering the 2018 Big Dance, while last year it was 20th. They’ve won nine games in a row heading into the NCAA Tournament, and have’t allowed an opponent to score 70 or more points in regulation since January. The Wolverines surprised us in the NCAA Tournament last year because they didn’t have a particularly strong end to the regular season, finishing 3-2 in their final five games. This season, the team won five games in a row before postseason play started, and that should give you even more confidence as you fill out your bracket.
NCAA Tournament success is still a crapshoot, but Michigan is playing as well as it could have hoped entering college basketball’s biggest stage. Last year, the Wolverines made it to the Sweet 16 before suffering a 1-point loss to Oregon. At the very least, it’s easy to see a similar run unfolding this time around.