Two seasons ago, Tulsa coasted through Conference USA, winning their final 11 regular season games before losing to UCLA in their first game of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, their first in the American, the Golden Hurricane compiled an impressive 14-4 record in conference play but went to the NIT.
Fast forward to 2015-16 Tulsa, a team comprised of mostly seniors in the rotation. At 20-11 overall and 12-6 in the American, they did not expect to be here. The committee, however, put a strong emphasis on top-50 RPI wins, of which Tulsa had 4. For those counting at home, that's more than Valaparaiso, Saint Mary's, Monmouth, St. Bonaventure, San Diego State and South Carolina. And whether it's fair or not, the Golden Hurricane are in the field of 68.
Their best player is James Woodard, a 6'3" senior who averages 15 points and five rebounds. Woodard has attempted 62% of his shots from behind the arc, and Tulsa will look to get him going to jumpstart their offense. His backcourt mate Shaquille Harrison is averaging just under 15 per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds. Harrison does all of his work inside the arc, but isn't a particularly efficient shooter at 46%. The third backcourt player is Pat Birt, a transfer from Illinois-Chicago. Birt also relies heavily on the 3-pointer, shooting nearly 67% of his shots from behind the arc despite only connecting at a 37% clip.
Inside, forwards Rashad Smith, Brandon Swannegan and D'Andre Wright do of the heavy lifting for the Golden Hurricane. Smith didn't play in the two games before the American tournament, sidelined with a shoulder injury, and only combined to score 13 points in the two games. While Smith struggled, Swannegan played extremely well, averaging 17.5 points and seven rebounds during the tournament. At 6'9", he could give Michigan trouble inside, but the Wolverines have enough bigs to be able to match Swannegan. Wright will come in and mostly rebound, as he's only knocked down 62 shots in 31 games this season.
Off the bench, Wright plays in the frontcourt but the Golden Hurricane has three additional guards they play. Marquel Curtis does a little bit of everything off the bench, and at 6'3" he can give Tulsa some versatility. Rashad Ray should get about 10 minutes, but he's been essentially non-existent the last five games. The final guy off the bench is Sterling Taplin, who had 15 points a few weeks ago against Memphis but didn't play three games before that. Taplin could be a key off the bench or be entirely forgotten depending on Frank Haith chooses to go.
For Michigan, it's pretty simple: play their game, take good shots and limit Tulsa to one shot on the offensive end. The Wolverines were battered by teams like SMU and Purdue with enormous frontlines, but Tulsa doesn't present those problems. The Golden Hurricane is a worse version of Michigan, and they don't have the luxury of having a knockdown outside shooter like Duncan Robinson at their disposal.
The Wolverines need to get off to a hot start, especially given they've come out extremely sluggish in far too many games this season. Getting a lead early will allow them to settle in and find rhythm offensively, something that at times has been brilliant and at others been an enormous disaster.
I'm also curious to see what John Beilein is planning on doing with the big man rotation. In the last week, Moritz Wagner jumped ahead of Ricky Doyle in the depth chart, and was phenomenal against Indiana. Will Beilein move Doyle back, will Wagner stay in that spot, or will D.J. Wilson earn minutes like he did against Purdue? (Michigan fans are really hoping Wilson doesn't see the floor).
Lastly, Michigan needs to make sure Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin are taking and making good shots. They've become the undisputed leaders on this team, and when they're playing well, the whole team feeds off of it. Their play also opens up the pick-and-roll for guys like Mark Donnal, Michigan's best pick-and-roll man this season.
Overall, this is a game Michigan should absolutely win. Tulsa truthfully has no business being in the NCAA Tournament over some of the aforementioned teams above, and Michigan being seeded 11th could ultimately be a huge boost. They would play the 6 seed next and then a 3 seed as opposed to playing a 1 or 2 seed, and they should take full advantage of their road. It's a new season, and Michigan should be up to challenge, primed to make a run starting in Dayton Wednesday night.