Michigan fans have reason for optimism: Here’s 4

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

After Michigan coach John Beilein climbed the ladder and cut down the rest of a net at Staples Center, he twirled it above his head, turned to the maize and blue faithful, and shouted, “One more!”

Los Angeles became the second postseason stop where the Wolverines have walked away with nylon souvenirs, following their Big Ten tournament title run in New York City this month.

Michigan (32-7) has set its sights on basking in one last confetti-filled celebration at the Final Four in San Antonio, where two wins is all that separates the team from its first national title since 1989.

But it will be no easy feat. Cinderella story and No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago stands in its way in Saturday’s national semifinal, with a match against No. 1 seeds Kansas or Villanova looming in Monday’s championship game.

More: Confident Michigan knows it can win in many ways

“I’d love to cut down one more net,” Beilein said. “I’m no spring chicken and I’m not planning on going anywhere, but it’s so hard to get here.

“We got to appreciate it but if we have an opportunity to cut one more down, that would be special.”

Here are four reasons Michigan could snip the twine for a third and final time this season:

Dominant ‘D’

Michigan is the best defensive team among the four left standing and ranks fourth nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (91.1 points per 100 possessions). Villanova is 13th (94.6), Loyola-Chicago is 18th (95.4) and Kansas is 42nd (97.1).

And the Wolverines have proved it in the NCAA Tournament, holding three of their four opponents to some of their worst offensive outings of the season.

Montana entered the first-round matchup averaging 78.1 points and shooting 47.1 percent from the field. The Grizzlies were held to a season-low 47 points and 32.1-percent shooting, their second-lowest mark.

Houston entered the second-round matchup averaging 77.1 points and shooting 46.3 percent from the field. The Cougars were limited to 63 points and 37.3 percent shooting, which ranked as their second- and third-lowest marks, respectively.

Florida State entered the Sweet 16 averaging 80.9 points and 47.2-percent shooting from the field. The Seminoles mustered just 54 points and shot 32 percent, which were both season lows. The Wolverines also contested 90 percent of Florida State’s shots, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

In those three games combined, Michigan allowed 21 assists while forcing 37 turnovers, recorded 14 steals and 12 blocks, and surrendered just two fast-break points.

“We take a lot of pride in our defense,” Michigan freshman forward Isaiah Livers said. “Coach B has never had a team that took pride on defense. … I know Coach is very happy to have a defensive team because he’s not used to having a team that can get a stop. He usually has a team that just hits a bunch of 3s and scores a bunch, but it’s a whole different team.”

Finding a way

It hasn’t always been pretty, but Michigan has been able to scrap out wins in every way, shape and form: at the buzzer, with stifling defense and with potent offense.

The Wolverines shot 31 percent or worse from 3-point range in wins over Montana (5-for-16), Houston (8-for-30) and Florida State (4-for-22), but managed to lock in defensively and hit clutch shots to do just enough offensively, particularly when the Seminoles and Cougars went smaller at the five.

“Being tough on the defensive end and getting rebounds, it’s not like a shot. It’s not 50-50,” Livers said. “You can actually control that and go get a stop, go get a rebound.”

Against Texas A&M and its two-big lineup, Michigan showed what it’s capable of when its offense gets rolling. The Wolverines didn't have much need to lock up on defense when they poured in 99 points and shot nearly 60 percent from both the field and 3-point range against an Aggies defense that ranks 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

“That’s what good teams do,” fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson said. “They win in different ways and that’s what we’ve been able to do all year.”

Team effort

Michigan’s balanced scoring attack makes it difficult for any team to shut down one guy and expect the offense to crumble. Bottle one up and another guys seems to break loose.

Junior center Moritz Wagner entered the postseason as Michigan’s leading scorer, but he hasn't been a dominant figure. He wasn’t much of a factor in the opener against Montana, was 0-for-7 from 3-point range against Florida State and has led the team in scoring just once in four NCAA Tournament games.

Redshirt sophomore wing Charles Matthews, meanwhile, has stepped up and shouldered the load, averaging a team-best 16.5 points while shooting 52 percent from the field and 68.8 percent from the free-throw line.

Overall, the Wolverines have received double-digit scoring performances from senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (twice), sophomore guard Zavier Simpson (once), Robinson (twice), Wagner (three times) and Matthews (four times), and have had three players either tie or lead the team in scoring.

Not to be outdone, the bench has come through in several late-game situations, highlighted by sophomore center Jon Teske’s key free throws against Houston that helped keep Michigan close and set up freshman guard Jordan Poole’s winning 3-pointer. So far in the tournament, the reserves have combined for 77 points, 26 rebounds, 10 assists and seven blocks.

A little luck

It never hurts to be both lucky and good, and Beilein would be the first person to admit that Michigan has been fortunate and has had several bounces go its way.

The West Region bracket fell apart and Michigan’s road to the Final Four has consisted of a 14 seed, a six seed, a seven seed and a nine seed. The only year the Wolverines have had a more favorable path was in 1993 when the highest seed they faced in the first four rounds was a No. 7 and the average seed of the teams was 9.8.

The biggest break came when Houston’s Devin Davis missed three free throws in the final 24 seconds, including two with 4 seconds left and the Cougars up by two. That ended up leaving the door open just enough and the Wolverines kept their season alive on the game’s final play with Poole’s buzzer-beater.

“The field this year is incredibly unpredictable,” Wagner said. “I think it’s only makes college basketball great. … At the end of the day, it’s two basketball teams playing against each other. Whoever plays better that day, seeding doesn’t matter. Everyone has to show up and play and we’ve been doing that.”


Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago

Tip-off: 6:09 p.m. Saturday, Alamodome, San Antonio

TV/radio: TBS/950 AM

Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 32-7; No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago 32-5

Up next: Winner advances to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova-Kansas winner.