WICHITA, Kan. — Michigan’s bandwagon is the only one in the NCAA Tournament with its own VIP section, tucked away in the cool corner. And behind the velvet rope, a Caviar Dreams Club that includes …
— Land of 10 Michigan (@Landof10MICH) March 6, 2018
"I think that's what gives them an edge, not only in this region, which sets them up well for a run to the Final Four, but against a team like Montana."
— Michigan On BTN (@MichiganOnBTN) March 14, 2018
— Mike Greenberg (@Espngreeny) March 11, 2018
And Dan Wolken:
Virginia, Michigan, Villanova and Duke is who I’ve got in the Final Four
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) March 12, 2018
Are you still the Cinderella of the ball if all the smart princes on the dance floor know you’re coming?
“It’s a little bit of a different position,” senior swing man Duncan Robinson told Land of 10 Wednesday during practice sessions for the Wolverines’ NCAA Tournament opener against No. 14 seed Montana, which tips Thursday night on TBS. “We’ve kind of always been the overlooked team. And we’ve always felt that way.”
Not this time, champ. Not by a long shot. Michigan, the No. 3 seed in the West Region, is on a lot of lips as a sleeper Final Four pick, and here’s why:
1. The Wolverines are a beast to prepare for on a short turnaround
The Big Dance is about matchup problems, and a 6-foot-11 German who connects on almost 40 percent of his 3-point tries is a major problem. It’s a different offense without Moe Wagner on the floor, but when the big lug is feeling frisky, there isn’t one in the field of 68 that’s quite like it.
“I think their defense frustrates you into bad shots and then your turnovers become extra possessions for them,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire noted Wednesday. “And [with] a team that’s as efficient as them offensively, you can’t afford to give them extra possessions or you’ll never get yourself out of a hole.”
2. Michigan players defend as if their scholarships depend on it
You know the numbers: No. 9 nationally in scoring defense (63.5 points allowed per game), No. 5 nationally in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency (92.9 points allowed per 100 possessions).
But here’s a number you might not know: According to Hoop-Math.com, the Wolverines (28-7) lead the nation in the highest percentage of opponent attempts that are 2-point jumpers (45.3) — in other words, some of the toughest shots to consistently make, especially on a neutral floor. The Fighting Beileins pack and chase and try to force you into bad shots, and dare you to try and beat them with a mid-range game.
Most teams can’t.
“If you have enough will inside of you to move the ball, make them work around, space them and get the best shot you can get, every possession, then you’ll give yourself an opportunity to win,” DeCuire noted. “But not very many teams have done that.”
3. They limit you to one shot — usually
Another not-so-secret Big Dance secret: Possessions are precious on neutral courts because shooting comes and goes. Teams that don’t get second chances at the rim don’t tend to stick around.
The Wolverines head into Thursday night ranked No. 21 nationally in lowest opponent offensive rebounding percentage, at 21.6, and No. 12 nationally in opponent offensive rebounds per game, at just 6.5 a tilt.
“They remind me of Michigan last year,” Fox Sports Detroit analyst and former Wolverines standout Tim McCormick told Land of 10. “They’re getting really good leadership. They defend better than John Beilein teams of the past. They rebound better. They’re really good.”
4. They take care of the rock
Same principle as the opponent’s offensive rebounds, only it’s about limiting the number of chances the other guy gets because you couldn’t get out of your own way.
Michigan excels on that front, too — ranking tops in the country in turnovers per play percentage (12.2), No. 2 in turnovers per game (9.2), and No. 4 in opponent steals per play (5.4 percent).
Montana's strength is defense and forcing turnovers. They rank 22nd nationally in steals per game. Of course we know Michigan doesn't turn the ball over very often.
— Rob White (@isportsRob) March 12, 2018
5. The West Region is totally manageable
Montana is athletic, angry and all kinds of feisty, but the Grizzlies (26-7) don’t have the Wolverines’ size in the paint. Ditto Houston and San Diego State, a pair of rosters that are more athletic, angrier, and feistier.
“I like their draw — I think it’s a pretty good draw,” Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris said. “To me, right now, their defense outweighs the concern that I would have, personally, which is their foul shooting. If anything is going to bring them down, that would be it. But it hasn’t done it so far.”
It hasn’t, although it’s the one thing that makes even gushing national pundits nervous about Michigan’s Final Four hopes. The Wolverines go into the Big Dance connecting on just 65.9 percent of their free throws as a team. And two of the team’s best backcourt options, point guard Zavier Simpson and wing guard Charles Matthews, are shooting just 51.9 and 56.1 percent, respectively, from the charity stripe.
Get ready for a lot of fouls. Especially late. Especially if Montana gets behind the 8-ball.
“The one thing that concerns you is when you shoot 66 percent [from the foul line] as a team and two of your starters … Matthews is at 56 percent, Simpson’s up to 52 … that concerns you,” Morris said.
“But this is [Beilein’s] best defensive team, by far, and I think since [the 72-52 loss on Jan. 18] at Nebraska, they’ve really done a much better job of understanding that somebody wants to switch [on] ball-screens. Now Wagner is willing to drive, he’s willing to be a passer.
“I think [Muhammad-Ali] Abdur-Rahkman is one of the most overlooked guys, not just in the [NCAA] Tournament, but in the country. I like the way this team is playing, especially on the defensive end. That’s the biggest thing that pops out to me. You always know what you’re getting offensively, but defensively, they’re really good.”
These days, when Cinderella boogies, she boogies in combat boots.
“To be honest with you, we feel like we play our best when we play with a chip on our shoulder,” Robinson said. “Just because maybe people are now picking us to win, I don’t think that’ll change. I think we’ve kind of always embraced that. And hopefully we’ll continue to play that way.”