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Michigan Goes West in Search of Subs and Victories

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Purdue vs Michigan Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After waiting a week following their Big Ten Tournament championship, Michigan learned their seeding, placement and draw Sunday night. The Wolverines find themselves as the #3 seed in the West Regional, with their first two games being played in scenic Wichita, Kansas.

There was a huge amount of uproar on Michigan Twitter following Michigan State’s placement as the #3 seed in Detroit and the Wolverines’ subsequent slot in Wichita. But honestly, playing Kansas and Duke in one weekend is far more challenging than the potential draw combination of North Carolina, Xavier and Gonzaga.

Before Michigan gets there, they’ll start with #14 seed Montana. The Grizzlies are no stranger to playing games in remote locations, as Missoula is situated near the Idaho, Washington and Oregon border. While Montana has a gaudy record at 26-7, they didn’t beat any team inside the RPI top-100. In terms of high major competition, only games against Pittsburgh, Penn State, Stanford and Washington were on the schedule. They did manage to knock off Pitt on the road, but Pitt finished the year 7-24, so let’s not read too much into that. They’re led by junior guards Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine, both guys capable of having big scoring outputs. The rest of the eight-man rotation is filled by players 6’8” or shorter, which could bode well for Michigan’s bigs scoring over smaller players.

Michigan should be able to get by Montana, and a likely second round matchup would be against #6 seed Houston. Rob Gray and his man bun have been leading the charge for the Cougars, as they only amassed four losses in conference play, all on the road. They just lost a heartbreaker to Cincinnati, 56-55, in the championship of the American Athletic Conference tournament, so it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any carryover from that. Like Montana, Houston also prefers to go small. Their three starting guards are all 6’1”, and Michigan can use someone like Charles Matthews in both matchups as a bigger wing to help disrupt the Cougars’ offensive flow.

There’s a shot Michigan could see San Diego State here, after the Aztecs just steamrolled their way through the conference tournament. SDSU has won nine in a row, and present matchup problems with multiple 6’10” forwards that can stretch the defense. The Aztecs are also coached by Brian Dutcher, a longtime assistant under Steve Fisher at Michigan during the Fab Five years before officially taking over as SDSU’s boss this season.

If I’m Michigan, I’d much rather play Houston than a blazing hot SDSU team. Rob Gray is probably the best player on either team, but Houston is heavily reliant on three-point shooting between Gray, Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks. I expect to see the Cougars here, and their lack of interior size should be a welcome presence for Jon Teske and Mo Wagner.

If chalk holds, Michigan will get a rematch of North Carolina in Los Angeles to start the second weekend. UNC amassed a whopping 14 quadrant one wins, whatever those are exactly, which was the most in the entire country. They struggled down the stretch, losing their final two regular season games to Miami and Duke, but then knocked off the Hurricanes and Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament before losing to Tony Bennett robot Virginia in the final.

It’s hard to evaluate this Carolina team. At their peak, UNC is one of the best five or seven teams in the entire country. But they’ve been prone to struggle, and 12th year senior Joel Berry can vacillate between an All-American and a total team detriment. Berry shot 14-46 in the four ACC Tournament games, and he’ll clearly stay on the floor even if he’s not shooting well.

While Berry is the cagey veteran, you could argue that Luke Maye, Cam Johnson and Theo Pinson are actually more valuable to the team’s overall play. Maye is the key interior scorer who can also stretch the defense, Johnson provides shooting and driving on the wing, while Pinson does a bit of everything. Add in Kenny Williams’ three-point marksmanship and Sterling Manley on the interior, and the Tar Heels have no fatal flaws in their rotation.

While Michigan and UNC appear to be the favorites to make it to Los Angeles from the bottom of the West Regional, the top of the region could be quite interesting as well. Xavier is by far the weakest of the one seeds, but I don’t see the Musketeers dropping either of their first two games. Michael Porter Jr. returning to play alongside his brother Jontay has people thinking a Missouri upset over Xavier in round two is a possibility, but I’m not even sure Missouri gets by Florida State.

Below them, the #5 seeded Ohio State Buckeyes haven’t been discussed much at all. The Buckeyes dropped three of their final five games with only wins against Rutgers and Indiana in that stretch. They get matched up with South Dakota State and Mike Daum, a 6’9” shooter and a wickedly talented SDSU team in Boise. Columbus is 2,000 miles from Boise, and I don’t expect a ton of Buckeye fans to make that trip. Keep the Buckeyes on major upset alert.

Arguably the most complete team in the region sits right below Ohio State, as the #4 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs start their campaign against UNC Greensboro. The Zags have their typical international flair, as arguably their two best players over recent weeks both come from outside the U.S. Killian Tillie has been more effective than a French baguette in Paris, knocking down 28 of 36 shots in the WCC Tournament, which was good for 24 points per game. Japanese star Rui Hachimura has been unbelievably solid off the bench this season, averaging 11 points and five rebounds in just 20 minutes per game. Josh Perkins and Silas Melson are somehow still there, and Johnathan Williams brings the muscle in the middle.

I don’t think any of the lower seeds are good enough to make the second weekend, even though I wouldn’t be surprised to see an upset or two on the first day. If chalk holds, Xavier-Gonzaga and Michigan-UNC would be two great Sweet 16 games. Xavier has two absolute studs in the backcourt in J.P. Macura and Trevon Blueitt, and Gonzaga has the aforementioned monster front court. Macura has been in the spotlight all season for pissing off opposing fans when he’s not making huge plays, and Blueitt is a legit NBA talent. But the Musketeers front court doesn’t provide much scoring punch, and they don’t have an imposing force like Jalen Reynolds in years past.

I wonder if Xavier and Gonzaga switching places this season actually helps out the Zags more. Last year, Xavier stormed to the Elite Eight as a #11 seed, while Gonzaga only lost once all year before the tournament and had the target on their back all season. This year, they lost three times in 2017 which took the pressure and national media off them. They’ve lost once in 2018. Give me Gonzaga in that one.

I already briefly discussed a Michigan-UNC rematch, but both teams are completely different. Zavier Simpson turned into one of the best defensive guards down the stretch this season and barely played in Chapel Hill. Jon Teske learned how to put people on posters, and postseason Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is something to behold. I like the Wolverines meeting the Zags in the West final.

While Gonzaga might be the most talented team in the region, there’s just something about playing John Beilein and Michigan’s stifling defense on short rest that probably won’t bode well for Gonzaga. Another interesting question: who is the best player in the region? There’s no Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jalen Brunson/Mikal Bridges, Devonte Graham, Miles Bridges or even friendly giant Isaac Haas to take over a game completely. I’d make the argument it’s Wagner, and it always helps when you have the best player on the floor.

Gonzaga might have a “home court” advantage being from the West Coast, but Spokane is on the Montana border and is roughly 1,200 miles north of Los Angeles. Michigan managed to pack Madison Square Garden, and filling the Staples Center with Maize and Blue shouldn’t appear to be too difficult. If Michigan has been practicing their damn free throws all week and can hover around 75% for the tournament, I like their shot to make it through the region and on to San Antonio.