Michigan’s reserves fuel drive to Sweet 16
Los Angeles — If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire team to win the game.
And without Michigan’s bench, there’s no question where the Wolverines would be.
“Clearly our season would be over with if somebody didn't hit a big shot the way he did,” red-shirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews said Tuesday with a smile in the L.A. Clippers locker room, referring to freshman guard Jordan Poole’s winning 3-pointer against Houston in the second round.
It’s the main reason third-seeded Michigan is still alive in the NCAA Tournament and has reached the Sweet 16, where it will take on No. 7 seed Texas A&M Thursday at the Staples Center.
But Poole’s miraculous moment was just the latest example of Michigan’s reserves coming through in the clutch during the postseason.
Against Montana in the first round, grad transfer Jaaron Simmons stepped in after sophomore guard Zavier Simpson was in early foul trouble and scored six points — his second-highest total of the season — to help get Michigan on track after falling into an early 10-0 hole.
Then in the second-round game against Houston, fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson buried three first-half 3-pointers and sophomore center Jon Teske, who entered the game as a 54.7 percent free-throw shooter, knocked down four key free throws in the final five minutes when points were hard to come by.
“Whoever is in there, we're a really close-knit team,” Teske said. “We have a lot of guys that can step up off the bench and we're capable of helping out. We know we need all 13, 14 guys on the team to help us win whether that be scout team, me, whoever. We just all come together.
“Coach (John Beilein) isn't afraid to send us in and I think he's comfortable with putting in more of his bench players because he knows he has more depth.”
Foul trouble in the first two tournament games forced the Wolverines to go 10-deep in rotation, something Beilein typically tries to avoid.
But it was a sign that the bench is arguably the deepest it has been in recent seasons.
“We've had some really good players come off and spell our bigs, guards or wings in my time here,” said Robinson, who began the year as a starter before moving to the bench for the second straight season. “But right now, the way the bench is playing coming off I think has really put us in a position to be successful.
“We’ve got guys that have played big minutes for us before. Jon had a stretch this year where he was starting and playing a lot because Moe (Wagner) was out. I think that really helped us moving forward. Obviously, Moe has come back into form and Jon has still been able to be that spark. ... We’re just doing whatever it takes to help us win.”
Wagner and Matthews said they don’t even view the reserves as backups because everyone on the team is game-ready and raring to roll whenever their number is called.
“We got guys on the bench that would probably be starters at a lot of other schools, so you know we got hungry guys that's ready to get out there and contribute,” Simmons said. “When we get out there, that's what we want to do and that's what we put our mind to. We got confidence to get out there and play.”
IN THE ZONE
Texas A&M ranks No. 9 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up 93.4 points per 100 possessions. The key to the Aggies' success is they change up their defense throughout the game and switch from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone that Beilein compared to Syracuse’s.
“It's really big,” Beilein said. “You think, OK, I've been open all year here, but all of a sudden you've got a guy like D.J. (Hogg) coming out on you, right, and he's 6-foot-9 on a wing. They've got the other wing is going to be 6'10" or 6'11", and that can present problems for teams, just shooting over that length.
“That's what Syracuse is. Syracuse has a great package in their zone. I remember when I was at West Virginia we were playing and we had these really good looks to get open the zone. We got a guy wide open, and Hakim Warrick blocked that shot into the 10th row, and that was the end of our night. I mean, our kids lost all confidence because of that length. And Texas A&M can do the exact same thing.”
Texas A&M deployed its zone in stretches to fluster Providence and North Carolina last week in its first- and second-round wins. It will likely reappear at times against Michigan, who struggled against Northwestern's matchup zone and shot 38.6 percent in an ugly road loss in February.
“We just try to use our length a little bit,” Aggies sophomore forward Robert Williams said. “We stretch them out, keep our arms wide with me and D.J. on the wings to contest a couple 3s and slow the game down.”
Michigan vs. Texas A&M
Tip-off: 7:37 p.m. Thursday, Staples Center, Los Angeles
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 30-7; No. 7 seed Texas A&M is 22-12
Next up: Winner advances to Elite Eight on Saturday to play the Gonzaga-Florida State winner.