Niyo: Michigan has a fresh clock in NCAA title bid

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan forward Moritz Wagner (13) reacts with fans as he exits the court after the win. UM defeated Texas A&M, 99-72, Thursday to advance to an Elite Eight matchup against Florida State  Saturday.

Los Angeles — If time is a friend of truth, as John Beilein said the other day, quoting an old English writer, then quite honestly it’s time to admit something about his team.

They’re capable of just about anything in this NCAA Tournament.

And if you didn’t believe that after watching them scrap for a pair of wins last weekend in Wichita, surely you must now, after seeing them trample Texas A&M in a Sweet 16 matchup Thursday night at the Staples Center. The third-seeded Wolverines started fast and never really slowed down in a 99-72 rout of the seventh-seeded Aggies in the West Region semifinal. Now they’ll face Florida State, which beat Gonzaga in the other semifinal, on Saturday for a berth in the Final Four.

If that seemed unlikely a week ago, it certainly doesn’t now. Not the way Michigan so efficiently – and ruthlessly – dismantled a big, bruising Texas A&M team that was coming off a 21-point blowout of defending national champ North Carolina — the No. 2 seed in the West — last weekend.

“Felt like we ran into a buzz saw,” Aggies coach Billy Kennedy said, and he wasn’t alone. Even Beilein will tell you the script “flipped a little bit” from a week ago.

The Wolverines felt fortunate to even be here after struggling offensively in the first two rounds in Wichita, something their coach openly admitted Wednesday.

“It wasn’t as good as some of our other games, but that just happens,” Beilein said. “Everybody is always asking for reasons why. There is no reason why. It just happens. They’re 19-year-old kids. It just happens.”

Lights out

What happened Thursday, though, was something entirely unexpected. Michigan missed its first shot attempt on the opening possession of the game, then proceeded to shoot the lights out the rest of the half. Seven different Wolverines hit three-pointers in the first 11½ minutes, the lead ballooned to 29 at one point, and with the defense creating easy buckets in transition, they led 52-28 at the half.

The Aggies tried switching off screens defensively, but that didn’t work, as the Wolverines took turns exploiting mismatches — like Duncan Robinson taking Tyler Davis, a 6-10, 270-pound center, off the dribble — and late closeouts, again and again.

Kennedy, who’d fretted publicly about his team’s big men having to guard on the perimeter, then tried switching to a zone, but the Wolverines barely blinked. Moritz Wagner hit a corner 3. Robinson hit another.

“I was just wondering when they were going to miss,” Aggies guard Admon Gilder said.

The Wolverines made just 21 field goals Saturday against Houston; they had 20 in the first 20 minutes Thursday night, and 10 of them were 3-pointers.

“I mean, we are capable of that,” Beilein said. “That’s the whole theory here behind having five shooters on the floor: Stretch people out and hope that you can get enough open shots and then make ‘em.”

They made ’em, all right, finishing the night 14-of-24 from 3, shooting 61.9 percent from the field and scoring a gaudy 1.38 points per possession.

“I felt like Michigan, the first 8-10 minutes, played about as well as anybody we played against this year," Kennedy said. "They looked like that’s how they played in the Big Ten tournament, more so than they played their last two games.

“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. It seemed like everything they shot went in.”

Dazed and confused

And at the other end of the court, the Aggies looked equally as lost Thursday. They’d talked Wednesday about how they planned to “abuse” Michigan with their hulking frontcourt. But Michigan barely let Davis touch the ball in the paint early, as Zavier Simpson’s quick hands produced five steals in the first half alone. Most of those came at the expense of Texas A&M guard T.J. Starks, a talented freshman who’d raised a few eyebrows Wednesday by saying he felt he was “unguardable” and “unstoppable.”

So much for that. Simpson “took a personal challenge there,” Beilein said, and in doing so, he stayed true to the slogan on Michigan’s warm-up jerseys: “Do More. Say Less.”

And that’s exactly what Beilein was talking about Wednesday after his team arrived in Los Angeles. He talked about handling the hype, and how one stumble too often leads to a fall. About how kids — and college-aged players like the ones he’s around day after day — tend to think it’s “the end of the world on any little thing.”

“No, it’s not,” he said, repeating the message he delivers to his team. “Just continue on. Persistence. Time is a friend of truth, and just keep going through it and keep being persistent and things will work out.”

That’s how his team managed to escape with that second-round win over Houston last week in Wichita, Jordan Poole draining a 30-footer at the buzzer to remind even some of his own teammates that the world — and their season — hadn’t ended just yet.

This wasn’t just the second weekend of the tournament. Robinson, a senior who knows the next loss will be his last game, said it felt like this West Coast trip was a “second chance.”

The Wolverines shot just 28.3 percent (13-of-46) from 3-point range in the first two games of the tournament, well off their season average (36.4 percent) and or even the 34.4-percent clip they hit in that four-game run to the Big Ten tournament title.

Maybe it was the 10-day layoff between games. Or maybe it was the late start times in Wichita. But Beilein seemed confident it was a minor blip, not a season-ending trend.

And in practice Monday, his team had its best-ever showing in one of their regular shooting drills, with 10 of 12 players making at least 60 3-pointers in a five-minute rapid-fire session.

“The standard used to be 50 until we got good at it,” Beilein said. “Now, it’s 60.”

That’s true of his program now, too, raising the standard with a fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the last six seasons. Only a half-dozen other schools can say the same: Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona, Gonzaga and Wisconsin.

Now Michigan’s headed to a third Elite Eight in that span, too, something only Kentucky and Florida — and possibly a few more, with Duke, Kansas and Syracuse yet to play — will be able to say by the weekend.

That’s some pretty good company. But this is a pretty good team, one that has won 12 consecutive games and tied a school record with its 31st victory of the season Thursday.

Beilein, for his part, said he never felt completely comfortable until he subbed out his starters with 2:09 left and Michigan up by 24. And he never really let it show until walk-on C.J. Baird, a freshman who started the season as a student manager, buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key that had his teammates in hysterics on the sideline.

“I just looked at our bench and they were going crazy,” Beilein said. “That’s the sign of a great team.”

How great? Time will tell, as Michigan tries to extend its season another week. But there’s no hiding the truth about how far they’ve already come.


Michigan vs. Florida State

Tip-off: 8:49 p.m. Saturday, Staples Center, Los Angeles

TV/radio: TBS/950

Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 31-7; No. 9 seed Florida State 23-11

Up next: Winner advances to Final Four vs. Loyola Chicago-Kansas State winner.