Wojo: For Wolverines, Spartans, no telling how far their rolls can go
Des Moines, Iowa — Lots of sweat, but ultimately, no sweat. With Sweet 16 berths in the balance, Michigan and Michigan State did what they do. They slapped on the defense and mercilessly slapped down opponents.
These were absolute plunders, and the Wolverines (30-6) and Spartans (30-6) stayed in lockstep, providing further evidence they have the ingredients for lengthy jaunts through the NCAA Tournament. You know how you can tell? Because when tension is heavy and mistakes are aplenty, they still have multiple means to succeed.
Michigan gave Florida all sorts of open 3-pointers early, then gave up virtually nothing the rest of the way, slamming the Gators 64-49 Saturday. Next is a Sweet 16 matchup against the winner of Texas Tech-Buffalo.
Michigan State gave the ball to Minnesota repeatedly, committing 22 turnovers. Then when they were mildly threatened by their Big Ten brethren, Cassius Winston unleashed a ruthless 7-0 burst and the Spartans rolled to a 70-50 victory. Next is a Sweet 16 matchup with LSU in Washington D.C. on Friday.
For No. 2 seed Michigan, making its third straight Sweet 16 appearance — its fifth in the past seven seasons under John Beilein — it never gets old. For fellow No. 2 seed Michigan State, it felt new again, after three consecutive first-weekend exits.
Relief? Yeah, that’s a good word.
“Yeah, definitely,” Winston said. “We haven’t been to the second weekend, so who knows what we’re capable of. It’s amazing just to get over that hump. I feel like this team is rolling, we’re playing really good basketball, and we got a chance to do some really special things. We don’t want to settle, we don’t want to feel like we conquered the world, but this is a great thing.”
These are the breaks
It also was the day’s second mismatch at Wells Fargo Arena, and since everyone talks about getting breaks, the Spartans and Wolverines should acknowledge theirs. The Gophers (23-14) were a 10 seed that surprised Louisville but limped into Saturday’s game with their top player, Jordan Murphy, ailing. In their only other meeting, Minnesota was dismantled by the Spartans 79-55, and this wasn’t much different.
Florida also was an ideal opponent for Michigan. The Gators (20-16) were a 10 seed for a reason, severely challenged on offense, even though they knocked off dangerous Nevada. Michigan turned a four-point lead into a rout, holding Florida to 28.6-percent shooting in the second half. Jordan Poole scored 19 points but this wasn’t about Michigan’s offense, and it generally isn’t.
You know what it’s about. Florida was held to its lowest point total of the season, as Jon Teske grabbed 10 rebounds and Zavier Simpson went 9-9-9 (points-rebounds-assists).
“That was incredible defense,” Beilein said. “Zavier and Charles (Matthews) have really led us, especially this last week. Those two are just champions. Believe me, we were all salty after our loss last Sunday (to Michigan State). Everybody was upset, and that could’ve torn us apart. It actually brought us together.”
The postgame soakings have begun anew, as players chased Beilein through the locker room, spraying water bottles at him and the assistants. The Wolverines turned the water on shortly after they turned the heat on, just as they did two nights earlier in a 74-55 blasting of Montana, in which the Grizzlies shot 33 percent.
With those back-to-back efforts, Michigan rose to No. 2 in the country in the KenPom adjusted-defense rankings. No. 1 is Texas Tech, which could be waiting for Michigan in Anaheim next Thursday. Every time the Wolverines falter a bit, their defense rises to another level. At halftime against Florida, with Michigan leading only 32-28, Matthews was one who made sure it happened.
“Charles said, whatever you’re thinking about, scratch it out of your mind,” Isaiah Livers said. “He literally said, going to the Sweet 16, you’ll know that feeling when you’re pouring water on all the coaches. I’ve never seen a speech from him like that. That was a huge statement he made for us, and you could tell it turned the team around.”
The Spartans turned themselves around a few weeks ago, after a loss at Indiana. They’ve won seven straight, six by double-digits. Per Spartan custom, it has been swarming defense and relentless rebounding. Bradley did present a challenge deep into the second half of the opener, before the Spartans prevailed 76-65. The Gophers offered no challenge, shot a puny 22 percent in the first half and finished the game 2-for-22 on 3s.
Thanks to the rise of Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins and Aaron Henry, and the return of Nick Ward, Michigan State’s rebounding has gone from solid to spectacular. Its margin against Minnesota? A scant 45-19.
“The turnovers were borderline ridiculous,” Izzo said. “I almost had to check at halftime if we were colorblind because we threw some right to them. What I was impressed with, our defense was phenomenal.”
The Spartans will have to improve the turnover element of their game, but every other element appears to be humming. And one big element — the nagging specter of previous Tournament failures — now is gone. For historical perspective, Michigan State has reached the Sweet 16 in 14 of the past 22 seasons.
“I guess there probably was more pressure on (his players) than I realize, because I just don’t think about it,” Izzo said. “But you never want to be the group that didn’t do this, or didn’t do that. I think it was huge for them, for the freshmen and the seniors. You gotta win a game and gotta get over the hump.”
The first two humps for the Spartans and Wolverines were more like speed bumps. The bumps will grow now, and they’ve shown they can take their lumps, and happily deliver plenty of their own.