WASHINGTON — Michigan cemented its status Friday as the most dangerous Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines had plenty of reasons to not beat Purdue, the No. 1 seed in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, at Verizon Center. Consider:
- Purdue was rested, while Michigan was the epitome of a tired team. The Wolverines not only were playing for the second time in less than 24 hours but they also were playing for the second time in two days after waking up before 6 a.m. Thursday and flying to Washington because their original flight attempt was aborted in a runway accident Wednesday.
- The Boilermakers are a tough matchup for most teams because of their frontcourt size. The Wolverines, in theory, lack the bulk to deal with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas.
- That issue was compounded Friday because forward Moritz Wagner had almost no impact on this game because of foul trouble. He did not make a shot from the field. Wagner finished with 5 points and 4 fouls in 17 minutes.
- One of Michigan’s strengths is outside shooting. The Wolverines made nearly 10 3-pointers per game during the season. Maybe in part because of the tired legs, they made 6 of 25 against Purdue.
This felt so much like a March Madness kind of game. The Wolverines had so much go against them, and a trip home was looming. They figured it out and knocked off one of the best teams in the country.
“We were locked in, and we believe that we can win, no matter what,” forward Mark Donnal said. “If shots don’t go in, we have confidence in guys that they will start going in. It started at the defensive end.
“The games that we’ve played really well are the ones we get it done at that end. We have guys who we know can score at any time. This offense is going to get guys open looks. If we want to go far, we know we have to play well at the defensive end.”
Surviving in the NCAA Tournament is often about figuring it out when the team doesn’t play its best. It is also often about matchups.
That is what makes Michigan so dangerous.
The Wolverines are going to be one of the toughest teams for anyone to match up against. Part of it is John Beilein’s offense, which can be extra tough to deal with when there is only a day to prepare for it (like in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, for instance).
It’s also the versatility of the players on the roster. Was it going to be tough for the Wolverines to limit Swanigan and Haas in the paint? Sure. But those guys also had to guard Wagner and D.J. Wilson.
“We’re mobile. We’re agile,” Wilson said. “Taking them off the dribble is a real good option for us. We did so [Friday]. It resulted in a win.”
Wagner lit up the Boilermakers two weeks ago in Ann Arbor with 24 points. Friday, it was Wilson’s turn. He had 26 points, 8 rebounds and an overtime-forcing blocked shot.
Michigan’s big men all dealt with foul trouble in this game. Wagner, Wilson and Donnal all finished with 4 fouls. None of them fouled out, though.
Swanigan did. He finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Haas had 17 points and 5 rebounds. Both were effective. Again, Michigan still found a way.
Another reason to believe in Michigan when the brackets are announced should be its seeding. The Wolverines were in danger of ending up as a No. 8 or 9 seed, which means a date with one of the four best teams in the nation and a likely end to the season by the end of the first weekend.
Beating Purdue twice in the last two weeks could/should push the Wolverines at least to a No. 7 seed. Winning again Saturday could make that even more certain. If Michigan can climb to a No. 6 seed, the Wolverines will barely be an underdog in a second-round matchup with any of the potential No. 3 seeds. The 3-seed pool currently looks like Baylor, Louisville, Arizona, UCLA, Florida State, Duke and maybe West Virginia.
Michigan will not be the highest-seeded team from the Big Ten in the NCAA bracket, even if the Wolverines win the conference tournament. The Wolverines could be the best bet to advance to the second weekend.
“This tournament has shown the resilience we have,” forward Duncan Robinson said. “We put forth great effort, and on top of that, we’re a tough matchup for people. This became a matchup of wills. Were we going to play big or were they going to go small?
“We did a good job of exploiting matchups. Guys are so playing so unselfishly.”
That sounds like a dangerous team at this point in the season.