WICHITA, Kan. — You, me, grandma, Uncle Buck? We are all Retrievers now. Or at least until 9:40ish on Saturday night.
The good folks at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County — or UMBC, as their friends call it, and, heck, we’re all friends these days — reminded us why Bracketville is the craziest, loopiest, most magical, nonsensical place on Earth. The Chesapeake Bay Retrievers (24-10), runners-up in the America East Conference, smashed the last glass ceiling of March Madness, becoming the first 16 seed to defeat a 1 with a 74-54 hammering of ACC champion Virginia on Friday to cap the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
The lesson? The No. 1 overall seed is dead, kids, your bracket is toast, and anything is possible now.
Of course, if you’re Michigan — the Big Ten tourney champion, the 3 seed in the West, a blue blood, a favorite, a sleeper pick to march all the way to San Antonio — the last kind of anything you want is to follow the Cavaliers’ missteps into the historical face-plant zone.
So what can the Wolverines (29-7), who take on No. 6 seed Houston in the second round of the Big Dance at Intrust Bank Arena, learn from the insanity of what went down in Charlotte as they wait for their turn at bat?
Let’s start with the basics:
1. Don’t ever, ever, ever, EVER lose the shooter
Once senior UMBC guard Jairus Lyles got going, he never stopped. The Maryland native became the leading man in the NCAA Tournament’s most what-the-expletive moment by dropping 28 points on Virginia, connecting on 9-of-11 shots from the floor and draining 3 of 4 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Keeping a close watch — and several hands — on Cougars point guard Rob Gray, who snatched one of the first seats at March Madness’ unknown-to-household-name table Thursday by lighting up San Diego State for 39 points, is a given. But woe be the Michigan defense if it loses track of Houston’s Corey Davis Jr. (102 3-point makes) and Armoni Brooks (82 treys), even though they shot a combined 2 of 14 in the opening round.
2. Don’t let the underdog dictate tempo
Like any good dog, the Retrievers ran. And ran. And ran some more. Some of that was situational — UMBC ranks a middling No. 172 in KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo rankings — but most of it was by design. Virginia, No. 351 out of 351 in those same tempo rankings, is the nation’s most deliberate, possession-hogging offense, the Wisconsin ideal on steroids.
UMBC’s plan was to try to find the best shot possible before the Cavs could get their world-class half-court defense — Virginia ranks No. 1 in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency — properly set. Runouts off rebounds from a flurry of missed Cavalier shots helped that tactic immensely, as we’ll touch on in a second.
The Wolverines can run and break when they have to, but that hasn’t been in the DNA of this particular squad, whose data — and pace — closely matches the formula Virginia had used so effectively during the season.
Michigan goes into Saturday night ranked No. 332 in KenPom.com adjusted tempo and No. 4 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Coach John Beilein’s bunch has excelled at maximizing possessions, maximizing possession time, not giving the ball away, and letting the opponent shoot itself or turnover itself into an eventual oblivion.
More often than not, even if the side effects can make for ugly tilts such as the 61-47 victory over Montana, that formula works. But if one, or, Heaven forbid, multiple Cougars shooters start chucking off the fast break and get hot from the arc — UMBC was 12 of 24 on treys, while the out-of-their-comfort-zone Cavs were 4 of 22 — all bets are off.
3. Don’t get crushed on the offensive glass
Bad shooting nights are commonplace in Bracketville, but dancers with repetitive 1-and-done possessions are screaming for trouble. UMBC outboarded the favored Cavs 33-22 Friday night, which was impressive enough. Yet the finer points were even more telling: 29 of the Retrievers’ grabs were defensive rebounds, compared to only five offensive boards for a Virginia crew that connected on just 41.1 percent of its attempts from the floor and only 18.2 percent of its treys.
That’s a heck of a lot of 1-and-dones. And a heck of a lot of opportunities for a fast team to grab a defensive board and try a runout the other way.
The same is true on the other end, which might be something to keep an eye on when the Cougars have the ball. Michigan ranks No. 17 nationally in defensive rebound percentage (78.5 percent of available caroms), while Houston excels at second chances, ranking No. 14 nationally in offensive rebound percentage (33.4 percent).
“When those two things clash, somebody is going to win it,” Beilein said. “While you’re hedging the ball screen or doing whatever you choose to do, their big guy is rolling down State Street trying to get the rebound, and now one of your guards has to pick him up. And that’s a difficult thing for people.”
4. Don’t blow your gifts
All together now: Free throws, free throws, free throws. The Cavaliers took only 8 and connected on 4. UMBC made 14 trips and made good on 10.
That’s a 6-point swing in a contest decided by 20, granted. But the lessons from Friday in Charlotte apply to Saturday in Wichita, too: The heavier the stakes that are thrust upon Bracketville’s scales, the more the little things can start to tip them.