Wolverines 'grateful' to advance without playing their best
Wichita, Kan. — Michigan junior center Moritz Wagner couldn’t help but shake his head and offer a wry smile.
Twenty minutes earlier, the Wolverines were on the brink of disappointment and seconds from having their postseason aspirations crushed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
But then madness ensued and third-seeded Michigan was able to escape with a heart-racing, 64-63 win over No. 6 seed Houston after freshman guard Jordan Poole’s miraculous 3-pointer beat the buzzer Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena.
Michigan (30-7) punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season and will dance all the way to Los Angeles, where it will play No. 7 Texas A&M on Thursday in a West Region semifinal.
“I don’t know if it has something to do with Wichita, but I’m ready to go back to Ann Arbor and make a check mark behind this weekend because that wasn’t our best basketball,” Wagner said. “Hopefully we got the rust off a little bit and it’ll get better this week. I’m very grateful that we get another chance.”
However, at several times throughout Michigan’s first- and second-round games, it seemed like that next shot might never come. The Wolverines hardly resembled the team that rolled through the Big Ten tournament and entered the Big Dance riding a wave of momentum.
They got off to sluggish starts on offense and failed to make a basket in the first four minutes against Montana and Houston. They opened 0-for-4 from the field against the Grizzlies with several turnovers sprinkled in between as they fell into a 10-0 hole, and missed their first seven shots against the Cougars, with six coming from beyond the arc.
Foul trouble became a recurring obstacle to work around as sophomore guard Zavier Simpson was limited to four first-half minutes against Montana, and fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson and redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews fouled out late against Houston when the game — and season — was hanging in the balance.
On top of that, there were baffling miscues, like the poor passes that led to numerous turnovers in transition against Montana and the handful of shots that completely missed the mark against Houston.
“We’re doing some things that I don’t know and we got to address them and try to get better at them,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I think we made some of the mistakes — we have only lost seven games, but those seven losses I felt we did some things that just don’t make sense and they’re not characteristic.
“We got in some foul trouble. We had a couple turnovers. We only had seven (against Houston) but a couple of them were really bad. We got to shake off some of those jitters and get better.”
But through it all, nobody blamed the 10-day layoff for the subpar performances and shaky play.
Instead, Michigan used clutch bench production and a relentless defense — one that held Montana to a season-low 47 points and Houston to its second-lowest point total — to find a way to preserve in a rather ugly yet successful four-day Wichita stay.
“It speaks a lot to our toughness, our resiliency,” Robinson said. “I just thought (Saturday) we had a refusal to lose. You get your back against the wall in a game like that against such a good team. They’re throwing punches and we’re trying to throw them back.
“I just thought we battled and to win games like that, we haven’t always won games like that here in my career. We always did it the pretty way where we make shots or run nice sets, but I just thought we gritted it out.”
And that’s essentially what it took for a team that was far from firing on all cylinders to advance to the second week of the tournament.
Abdur-Rahkman had 23 points in the two wins, but shot 7-for-26 from the field and 1-for-12 from 3-point range. Wagner, who averages a team-high 14.2 points per game, scored 17 in 55 minutes. As a team, Michigan shot 28.3 percent (13-for-46) from 3-point range and gave up 18 offensive boards despite ranking among one of the nation’s best in defensive rebounding percentage.
Add it all up and there’s more than enough concerns and room for improvement. But there’s also a sense of encouragement because not many teams would be able to say they survived and advanced while playing nowhere near their potential in March.
“That’s why I feel like we’re such a talented team with a great group of guys because we haven’t been playing the basketball that we’re accustomed to playing,” Poole said. “Being able to come out on top against two really good teams, it just definitely shows what we’re made of. When we’re able to get back to how we’re playing, we’re definitely going to be unstoppable.”
Michigan vs. Texas A&M
Tip-off: 7:37 p.m. Thursday, Staples Center, Los Angeles
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan is 30-7, No. 7 seed Texas A&M is 22-12
Next up: Winner advances to Elite Eight on Saturday vs. Gonzaga/Florida State winner