'Hard to beat': Florida State's Leonard Hamilton says Michigan could win it all

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Michigan might be missing one of its key pieces in the NCAA Tournament.

But the way Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton sees it, the Wolverines are still a national title contender with or without senior forward Isaiah Livers.

“That's a team that really, really knows who they are,” Hamilton said after the Wolverines crushed the Seminoles, 76-58, in Sunday’s Sweet 16 matchup at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“They know how to play to each other. It wouldn't surprise me at all for them to be standing there on Monday night with their finger up saying they're No. 1.”

Hamilton noted he can get a pretty good idea of most opponents' strengths and weaknesses on film and how to get ready for it. Yet, no amount of preparation could prepare Hamilton for what he saw on the court from Michigan.

The execution. The spacing. The patience. The discipline. The balance. The connectivity.

Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton questions a call during the first half.

The Wolverines shut down the Seminoles’ offense inside and outside the arc. They found the cracks in Florida State’s aggressive defense. They put together a sound performance that led to a lopsided result.

“I think they were the best version of Michigan tonight,” Hamilton said.

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Heading into Sunday’s contest, Hamilton thought Florida State’s biggest challenges were going to be freshman center Hunter Dickinson and grad transfer guard Mike Smith.

Hamilton wanted to keep the ball away from Dickinson and out of his hands. The big man ended up posting 14 points, eight rebounds and two assists while shooting 5-for-10 from the field and 4-for-7 from the free-throw line.

Similarly, Hamilton hoped his team’s backcourt length would pose a problem and rattle Smith like LSU’s bigger guards did. It didn’t. Smith bounced back with an eight-point, four-assist outing, controlled the game and finished with a team-best plus-22 rating.

“I think Mike is so important out there every single game for us,” sophomore wing Franz Wagner said. “He does so many good things offensively, just reading the game, putting every player in their best position out there. He deserves more credit for that, I think, even when his own stats maybe don't show that.

“We talked about it actually before the game. He's been counted out his whole life, so this is nothing new for him. I think he showed that chip on his shoulder is always there. I'm very confident with him at the point guard with every matchup that we have.”

In a game where Florida State appeared to have the advantage in certain areas due to its size and length, the final numbers favored Michigan. The Wolverines won the turnover battle, grabbed more offensive rebounds, shot 17 more free throws and outscored the Seminoles 50-28 in the paint.

And on a night where Michigan shot 3-for-11 from 3-point range and 15-for-23 from the free-throw line, it hardly mattered.

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“They were much more aggressive in terms of executing, getting the offensive rebounds and the putbacks and driving to the basket and spacing the floor,” Hamilton said. “We didn't get the same type of aggressiveness on our offensive end. And there lies the loss to a very good basketball team.”

While Hamilton was concerned about the amount of whistles Michigan was able to draw, he was more concerned about his team’s 0-for-7 3-point shooting and missed point-blank layups in the first half.

“If I did underestimate one thing, they were really big, strong, wide-body guys who really did a very good job of playing to themselves and within themselves,” Hamilton said.

“It's one of those nights where we just couldn't seem to finish our attempts at the basket, but you've got to give them credit for being big and strong and contesting shots in there. I don't want to take away from their defensive schemes that I thought caused us a little indecision and to be somewhat apprehensive and somewhat tentative when we went to the basket.”

With much of the recent national championship chatter centering around Gonzaga and Baylor, Michigan re-entered the discussion in Hamilton’s eyes.

“I will say this. If Michigan plays as well as they played today in terms of their focus and their execution and their spacing and the way they were connected today, I mean, they were almost flawless in their execution,” Hamilton said. “I was extremely impressed with how ready they were to play. They maintained their composure. From start to finish, they never deviated.

“If they play the way they played tonight, they're going to be hard to beat.”

Finishing touch

Arguably the loudest cheer from the pro-Michigan crowd came in the closing minutes when freshman wing Jace Howard capped the Wolverines’ blowout win with an and-1 layup.

With 1:10 remaining, Howard cut down the lane, received a pass from forward Jaron Faulds and finished through contact. The basket fired up the entire Michigan bench and drew a fist pump from his dad on the sidelines.

“Our guys do an amazing job of celebrating one another's success because it's a brotherhood that's special,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “It's not just a word when you talk about family and brotherhood. Those guys really believe it and buy into it because that's the care and love that they have for each other.

“As a father, it was beautiful to witness it because I see the hard work he's put in, and he deserved to be here, and his teammates have really embraced him, and he's embraced them.”

But the best part of the play?

“It put a big smile on my face to see that he made the free throw,” Howard said.

jhawkins@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins