The biggest storyline throughout the NCAA Tournament is Michigan. Northwestern’s first appearance was a cute sidenote, but the Wolverines’ plane crash and subsequent triumph through the Big Ten Tournament and their first two games in the NCAA Tournament has taken up a tremendous amount of airspace in the national media.
But let’s get down to basketball: Since blowing a laughably uninspired home against Ohio State in mid-February, this team is the hottest team still playing college basketball. In the first two games, the Wolverines outgunned the most prolific offense in the country by scoring 92 points, and followed up that up with arguably their best defensive performance of the season while sophomores D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner propelled the Wolverine offense to a four point victory.
With 16 teams remaining, there aren’t many left that aren’t elite offensively, defensively or both. The Ducks fall into the both category. For starters, Oregon has lost only five games all season: at Baylor, neutral-site to Georgetown, at Colorado, at UCLA, and in the Pac-12 semifinals to Arizona by 3. That’s three teams in the NCAA Tournament, one awful neutral site performance in November and one road slip up in Boulder. That’s it. To beat these guys, you have to play your best basketball of the season.
Michigan absolutely has the players to do it. John Beilein had tried to expand his rotation to nine or ten earlier in the season, but Jon Teske and Ibi Watson just weren’t ready for major minutes. Bench players Mark Donnal and Xavier Simpson likely won’t crack double figure minutes the rest of the season, but the five or ten minutes they give a game is crucial (Donnal’s 3-pointer and block against Louisville helped Michigan stay in the game in the first half). With that, let’s break down the role that each of Michigan’s main rotation players will have to play for the Wolverines to squash the Ducks.
Derrick Walton: Sure, Walton didn’t have the kind of epic scoring performance Michigan fans have come to expect over the last month. But the senior never panicked, and that’s a crucially important characteristic that will never show up in the box score. Walton was unable to find his shooting mojo against the monster athletes of Louisville, but his ability to do other things on the floor (seven rebounds, six assists, outstanding defense) makes it impossible to substitute him out. His matchup with Tyler Dorsey is going to be a rock fight between two of the hottest point guards in America right now, and Walton’s ability to at least slow down the Oregon guard will be crucial to the final outcome.
Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman: With MAAR’s ability to put the ball on the floor and finish in traffic, there are times when Michigan fans are rightfully annoyed that the veteran junior doesn’t attempt to take games over more (only four attempts in 37 minutes). The Pennsylvania native did a solid job defending Donovan Mitchell (8-17) and stayed out of foul trouble for the first time in a while. In a game with athletes all over the floor, he’ll need to play major minutes where Duncan Robinson might usually get a few extra. He’ll most likely be tasked with Dylan Ennis, the Ducks’ 6th year senior. Ennis is a solid scorer who averaged almost 11 a game this year, but similar to his defensive performance against Mitchell, MAAR just needs to force Ennis into long, contested jumpers.
Zak Irvin: It’s hard to comprehend just how crucial Irvin’s turnaround has been. He hasn’t tried to take over games, been outstanding on defense, and has morphed his game to becoming lethally efficient on the offensive end. He’s shot 36-64 (56%) this postseason, and 11-25 on 3s. Michigan doesn’t need Irvin to attempt more than 8 or 10 shots a game, but his rebounds (five per game) have become an integral part to Irvin’s complete late season transformation. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Irvin on Payton Pritchard to start, and he’ll probably guard Casey Benson where he comes off the bench also.
D.J. Wilson: It’s hard not to fall in love with Wilson’s game watching him play. He’s a 7-footer running around like a guard, swatting shots like a center, and prancing down the floor like a rangy wing. I profiled his matchup with Dillon Brooks yesterday, which I think will be the key to the Ducks’ or Wolverines’ ultimately pulling out the victory. Wilson would have been a prime matchup with Ducks reserve forward Chris Boucher, but the Canadian is out for the season with a torn ACL. The redshirt sophomore has upped his postseason point average to 16 per game, but his ability to control the offensive and defensive glass will be crucial.
Moritz Wagner: The German quite honestly could be the happiest player currently remaining in the NCAA Tournament. The Michigan big man was dominant against Louisville, using an array of post moves to score over Louisville defenders. While this isn’t the most important matchup, it’s perhaps the most intriguing matchup: Wagner vs. Jordan Bell. The Ducks senior is generously listed at 6’9”, and is more of a defensive stopper against more bruising forwards. Wagner’s ability to put the ball on the floor against Bell might not work, so Michigan will need to look to post Wagner up more. Also interesting: Wagner is shooting 70% (21 for 30) on 2s, and 27% (4 for 15) on 3s through six postseason games.
Duncan Robinson: As good of a shooter as Robinson is, the only way the redshirt junior can stay on the floor is when matched up with opponents he can guard. Against Louisville, Robinson was in way over his head against Deng Adel and the monstrous trees on the Cardinals. Robinson is an outstanding spark plug when he can find great matchups off the bench (Minnesota and Oklahoma State) and a liability when he can’t (Wisconsin and Louisville). He’ll likely guard Benson when he’s in the game, allowing him to chase the Oregon shooter around the perimeter in their own game of Cat and Mouse.
This is a great matchup of two teams both playing outstanding at the right time that limit fouls and play smooth, exciting basketball. Brooks is obviously the key, but Oregon will likely need a huge game from Dorsey, Bell and Ennis as well. Michigan’s offense has steadied the course, but the defense is ultimately what is going to take Michigan to the next round. If the Wolverines can keep the Ducks in the 70s, I like their chances. D.J. and Mo have great mismatches on the offensive end, so Walton and Beilein would be wise to look their way early and often.