On Friday, the Big Ten’s hottest team will tip off its 2017 NCAA Tournament campaign with a great deal of uncertainty and optimism. After a surprising run to win the Big Ten Tournament, the Michigan Wolverines will face a new barrage of challenges, including a litany of teams that are deeper and more talented than the Big Ten’s best.
But before Michigan can think about taking down some of the nation’s elite, it will have to avoid an upset on Friday. And that won’t be easy, as the Wolverines drew a dangerous Oklahoma State team in the first round.
Let’s take a look at that matchup heading into Friday’s tip.
1. What Style Does Michigan Want To Play?
Generally speaking, Michigan is not an uptempo team. Although a lot of media “experts” think the Wolverines play at a frantic pace, Michigan is actually one of the slowest teams in the nation, sitting at No. 340 nationally in adjusted tempo.
However, when Michigan wants to push the tempo, it does a great job. Fans saw this a great deal on Saturday when the Wolverines pushed the pace against a Minnesota team that had trouble getting back on defense. It led to a lot of easy buckets for Michigan and some great opportunities in transition.
But Oklahoma State is a team that likes to push the pace (No. 64 in tempo) and score. Notably, the Cowboys have the nation’s most efficient offense according to KenPom and have scored at least 80 points in the team’s last six games.
So, what does Michigan want to do?
Heading into Friday’s game, John Beilein and his staff will have an interesting question to answer. Does Michigan try to slow things down and operate in a half court set, or does the team put the pedal to the metal to expose a flawed Oklahoma State defense?
My suggestion would be a little bit of both. There’s no reason to play into Oklahoma State’s hand and push the pace. But if the Cowboys are slowing getting back? Push the pace and try and get easy buckets.
2. Who Takes Jawun Evans?
While Derrick Walton has turned into a special player for the Wolverines, Oklahoma State has one of its own in Jawun Evans. The sophomore guard has been phenomenal all season and has scored double-digits in 13 straight games.
So, who guards Evans?
Walton seems like the obvious choice, but does Michigan want to wear out Walton on the defensive end? It seems like a lot of risk for little reward, considering that Walton isn’t generally considered to be an elite defender.
My suggestion would be to glue Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (“MAAR”) on Evans and hope he can slow him down. MAAR has enough size and speed to at least make things uncomfortable (in spots) for Evans. It would also allow Walton to focus elsewhere, and mainly, on the offensive end.
Evans is going to get ‘his’ on Friday, but if Michigan can slow him down, it should be huge for the team’s chances.
3. Don’t Overlook The Little Things.
As mentioned above, the pace in this game is going to be really intriguing. But, regardless of whether Michigan slows things down or not, this is going to be a game with a lot of scoring. Michigan and Oklahoma State have nationally elite offenses and neither has an elite defense. It’s just not reasonable to expect anything else.
And in a game with a lot of scoring, it’s important that Michigan doesn’t forget about the little things. Michigan needs to avoid fouls, finish on the defensive boards, and convert on the free throw line. A possession or two will likely determine this game and the Wolverines need to maximize every one they get.
This is going to be where Michigan’s role players come in.
Can Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson finish on the boards? Will Zak Irvin be able to continue his recent run of success? Is MAAR going to have trouble from the line again? Michigan needs at least two of those categories to break its way.
Friday’s game between Michigan and Oklahoma State is going to be stuck in the middle of the afternoon (12:15 PM ET - CBS), but it could very well be the most exciting game of the entire day. In fact, it might even be the best game of the Round of 64.
However, that excitement will also bring opportunity. Michigan needs to find a way to come out just a bucket or two ahead. If so, the Wolverines could be a real sleeper to make a deep run this March.