Michigan's Jordan Morgan turned in his second straight double-double Saturday in the NCAA Tournament. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Milwaukee — The deeper the Wolverines go, the more dangerous they get. That’s true of many still alive in the NCAA Tournament but it’s increasingly true of Michigan, with its unique style, unique coach and uniquely talented shooters.
It’s a formula the Wolverines use well, and a path they know well. And amid all the craziness in a ridiculously wide-open bracket, they head to Indianapolis to face Tennessee on Friday night not yet on many radars. The Kentucky-Louisville clash will generate the buzz, but Michigan looks legitimately threatening again.
The Midwest region is still fairly loaded, but a few things have broken nicely. Duke is gone. Top-seeded Wichita State is gone, although I’m not sure that’s much of a break with Kentucky’s gifted youngsters once ranked No. 1.
Now Michigan gets to face a double-digit seed, and even that’s not quite the favor it appears. No. 11 Tennessee is one of those athletic underachieving teams that’s gotten hot, blasting Mercer 83-63 Sunday. The Volunteers barely snuck into the Tournament, beat Iowa in overtime in a First Four game, then thumped Massachusetts and Mercer. They have size and experience, led by 6-6 senior guard Jordan McRae, and are known for defense, rebounding and wild mood swings. Fair to say, they’re not your standard 11 seed.
After hammering the Longhorns, the Wolverines run into another orange-clad barrel in the Volunteers, who should be considerably tougher. If Michigan wins it, the final pothole before the Final Four would be a huge one. Whether it’s the Cardinals — who won the title game 82-76 last season — or the Wildcats, it again would require countering size with savvy.
The Wolverines have done it all year, back in the Sweet 16 after losing, arguably, their top three players off the NCAA finalists. John Beilein’s system is tournament-tested with its interchangeable parts and intricate sets. And the players who must lead the way are responding, starting with Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III.
Every time the Wolverines were challenged the first two games, they shrugged it off. That’s easier to do against Wofford, and it certainly helped to hit 14 3-pointers in the 79-65 rout of Texas. But with Stauskas taking on more play-making duties, and Robinson aggressively taking more trips to the basket, Michigan is compensating for its defensive and rebounding deficiencies.
“I’m definitely confident in my shot right now,” Robinson said. “I’m not scared to take the (big) shot. This team has been through it all, and on the bench, everybody’s calm and composed.”
Beilein is the understated orchestrator, reluctant to tout what he’s done. But it’s eye-opening — two Big Ten titles, two straight Sweet 16s and a 9-4 Tournament record at Michigan. When a matchup can be exploited, the Wolverines often do, as they did against the Longhorns’ zone defense. Jordan Morgan wasn’t supposed to be able to handle Texas’ big guys but was superb, running and hustling them into exhaustion.
The key contributors are different but the system is the same. Morgan didn’t play much in last year’s Tournament but now performs the role of Mitch McGary, out after back surgery. Robinson is filling more of the wing duties that Tim Hardaway Jr did.
And the major development is, Stauskas is gradually mirroring what Trey Burke did, creating shots for others without turning down too many. Stauskas had 17 points and tied his career high with eight assists, balancing the attack against Texas.
“That’s one thing about Nik — he’s obviously a great shooter and a great scorer, but some people don’t realize how good a passer he is,” backup guard Spike Albrecht said. “He sees the floor really well.”
That’s vital as defenses swarm Stauskas when he maneuvers behind a screen. It matters because Michigan has five shooters — Stauskas, Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr., Zak Irvin, Albrecht — hitting at least 39 percent on 3-pointers, a lethal total.
Michigan has played better defense of late, but that’s not what stresses opponents. Texas coach Rick Barnes was lamenting Michigan’s 14-for-28 three-point shooting as if he couldn’t believe it, and couldn’t do much to stop it.
“They’re an outstanding team, and you’ve got to love the efficiency they play with,” Barnes said. “If you ask me, they’re as good as anybody.”
Changes on the fly
He meant on offense, and that goes back to the unique challenge Michigan presents. In short preparation turnarounds, Beilein and his staff excel. In the second game of Tournament weekends the past two seasons, Michigan has clobbered VCU (78-54), Florida (79-59) and Texas. In 2011, it dismantled Tennessee, 75-45, in the Tournament opener, which led to the firing of coach Bruce Pearl and the hiring of Cuonzo Martin.
“We have such a deep complement of schemes, I think it puts us at a competitive advantage,” assistant Bacari Alexander said. “Against opponents, we get to focus on maybe one to three things they do well. They know they have to guard five guys playing in concert with a deep playbook.”
Deep shots and deep playbooks can produce deep runs. They also can get derailed by one night of misfiring. Tennessee will try to harass and chase shooters around the perimeter, and it has the ability to be effective. Once again, Michigan will dig deep for answers, and will have plenty of options.