Michigan basketball plays Loyola-Chicago on Saturday in its second Final Four in six years. The Wolverines have followed through on the potential they showed in the Big Ten Tournament to outlast the rest of the West Region to make it this far.
Michigan got here with defense
Michigan’s defense is fourth in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. In the past three seasons, the Wolverines were 69th, 92nd and 100th in defensive efficiency. This season has been the best they’ve been on defense since Pomeroy started measuring advanced stats on his site in 2002.
Michigan’s defensive strength is on the outside. Here’s what an anonymous coach told ESPN:
“They’ve got three really good on-ball defenders. Most teams don’t have two, or even one. They have three. [Zavier] Simpson, [Muhammad-Ali] Abdur-Rahkman, [Charles] Matthews can really guard the ball. You don’t have a matchup on the perimeter you can attack. They’re handsy, they’re physical in all the right ways. How handsy and chippy they are, in itself is very anti-Michigan-like. They’re well-schooled. They’re so good at putting their hands on or getting an armbar into you and then taking it off, then beating you to the spot.”
Moe Wagner has been Michigan’s MVP this season, but he’s had more than enough support in the tournament
Center Moe Wagner has been Michigan’s top offensive weapon all year. He led the Wolverines with 14 points per game, a 24.4 player efficiency rating and a 40 percent mark on 3-pointers. But Michigan didn’t just coast to the Final Four thanks to Wagner.
In fact, Michigan’s best player hasn’t led the team in points by himself in any March Madness game. Simpson, Matthews and Abdur-Rahkman are superior to Wagner defensively, and each has brought it in the tournament. Matthews scored 20 points against Montana. When Wagner scored 21 points against Texas A&M, Abdur-Rahkman scored 24. When Wagner scored 12 against Florida State, Matthews had 17.
This isn’t to say Wagner has been bad in the tournament. March Madness is still an exercise in small sample size. He’ll be a tough matchup for Loyola-Chicago. Freshman Cameron Krutwig, at 6-foot-9, 260 pounds, will draw Wagner. Krutwig likely doesn’t have the athleticism to stick with a center who can do this:
Michigan hasn’t needed Wagner to catch fire in order to advance in the tournament. The Wolverines might need that on Saturday, and it’s easy to see him delivering the goods.
Michigan didn’t really look *this* good until the end of the season
Michigan really didn’t look like a Final Four contender early in the season. Or even halfway through the season. The Wolverines weren’t a top-15 team on KenPom’s rankings until they beat Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament.
The catalyst in this improvement can be traced to defense. Michigan didn’t really start locking people down at an elite level until the end of the season, and that’s when the Wolverines finally looked like a contender.
“We had extremely talented players last year that had really been through the process before,” coach John Beilein told reporters after winning the Big Ten Tournament. “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.”
Michigan has made the championship in all but one of its previous Final Four appearances
Michigan has made eight Final Fours in its program history. The Wolverines have made the championship game in all but one of its previous seven:
- 2013 — Lost in national championship to Louisville
- 1993 — Lost in national championship to North Carolina
- 1992 — Lost in national championship to Duke
- 1989 — Won national championship over Seton Hall
- 1976 — Lost national championship to Indiana
- 1965 — Lost national championship to UCLA
- 1964 — Lost Final Four game to Duke
This is weird, and certainly not at all predictive of the future. Nonetheless, it’s notable.