It has been four seasons since Michigan made a run to the Final Four.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas thinks the Wolverines are capable of pulling off the feat for the second time in five years, and being one of the last four teams standing in San Antonio later this month.
“It’s essentially can you win two four-team tournaments?” Bilas said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “That’s basically what the NCAA Tournament is for each team. It’s a series of three four-team tournaments and if you can wrap your head around that you have a chance to do well. Michigan clearly can function in a tournament setting because they’ve won their tournament the last two years.”
Michigan became the third team to win back-to-back Big Ten tournament titles after ripping off four wins in four days last week at Madison Square Garden, highlighted by consecutive top-10 victories over rival Michigan State in the semifinals and Purdue in the championship game.
Last season, the Wolverines rode that momentum to the second week of the NCAA Tournament and were a Derrick Walton Jr. jumper away from edging Oregon and advancing to the Elite Eight.
Bilas noted this season’s team still spreads the floor, shoots a lot of 3-pointers and makes opponents chase them around, but the offense simply isn’t as efficient and prolific as it has been in past years.
But that’s not the biggest difference. That distinction goes to Michigan’s defense, which ranks sixth in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (92.9 points) and ninth in scoring defense (63.5 points), as of Tuesday.
“Michigan is a way better defensive team than they’ve been in a long time and one of the reasons is they rebound. They defensive rebound and they limit you to one shot,” Bilas said. “They’re a little bit more athletic than they’ve been. They do a really good job of staying in front of the ball so they don’t have to help quite as much as they have in the past.
“They’re not a shot-blocking team, so they don’t protect the rim, but they protect the lane really well. It’s hard to get to the basket on them and they do a good job of making you take contested shots. And they do so for the most part without fouling. They put you on the line a little bit and maybe more than John Beilein wants, but for the most part they make you make a more difficult shot than you would normally take and that’s the sign of a good defense.”
It has become Michigan’s calling card and one of the main reasons it’s the only Big Ten team to beat the other 13 conference foes so far this season.
Add a dash of moxie and toughness to go along with a balanced scoring attack, Bilas said it’s hard to argue the Wolverines have the makings of a contender who could reach the final weekend for the eighth time in program history.
“There are a number of teams that are capable of beating Michigan,” Bilas said. “But there are very few teams, if any, that Michigan is not capable of beating and that’s got to be a good feeling going into the tournament.”