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Michigan Two Games Away From Champions of the West

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Houston vs Michigan Kelly Ross-USA TODAY Sports

At roughly 10pm E.T. Thursday night, 10 hours from the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, Montana raced out to a 10-0 lead against Michigan. The Wolverines looked like they didn’t want any part of it, and the presumed 10pm C.T. city-enforced curfew in Wichita scattered out the majority of the fans who rooted on their Kansas Jayhawks earlier in the day. It took backup graduate transfer point guard Jaaron Simmons, who played a large majority in the first half due to Zavier Simpson’s foul trouble, to knock down three layups to even keep Michigan competitive in the first half. One the dust settled from the brick laying contest, Michigan actually found themselves with a 31-28 halfitme lead.

Then the clock malfunction happened. For roughly 10 minutes in the second half, the clock operators in Wichita, who probably expected to be asleep by that point, couldn’t figure out how to properly get the clocks running behind one of the baskets. All of Michigan’s second half momentum was halted, and the game turned into an ugly slug fest. One of Montana’s players even tried to take a swing at Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman in an area that commentators refer to as the “midsection”. It was one of those nights.

Michigan ultimately pulled away, using 20 points from Charles Matthews all inside the arc to propel the Wolverines to a 61-47 victory. This was one of those games where you probably burn the offensive tapes, but really make a concerted effort to applaud the defense. Montana’s two starting guards were forced into bad, contested shots all night and no else even came close to finding a rhythm.

The reward for beating Montana? Another 10pm E.T. start, this time with man bun sensation Rob Gray and the Houston Cougars. Their plethora of diminutive guards matched up rather well with Michigan’s bigger guards, but the Wolverines were mostly concerned with being able to contain Gray. The man bun was effective but limited, as Zavier Simpson hounded him into 23 points on 22 shots. Houston’s other starting guards went a combined 1-8, and the bench guards went 1-7. Michigan just couldn’t score the ball.

Duncan Robinson was the catalyst early, knocking down three three-pointers in the first 10 minutes to kickstart the Michigan offense. Despite Robinson’s hot shooting, the Wolverines only managed two field goals the final 9:34 of the first half, creating a 28-28 deadlock at halftime.

The second half played out eerily similar to the first, with both teams struggling to find any offensive consistency. Houston forward Devin Davis gave Michigan fits all night, finishing with 17 points and seven rebounds while consistently earning trips to the free throw line. A Gray three-pointer gave Houston their biggest lead of the second half, 49-43, with just over 10 minutes to go.

Fast forward to 30 seconds left, as Michigan found themselves down two points with the ball. The ball was undoubtedly going to Abdur-Rahkman, who had been the Wolverines’ most consistent driver and finisher at the rim all season. But Abdur-Rahkman missed a point-blank look to tie the game, and Michigan was in big trouble. Charles Matthews fouled the aforementioned Davis, who was 9-10 from the free throw line up to that point, with four seconds to go.

Davis stepped up to the line, and while his face didn’t appear to be completely rattled, he was most definitely shaking in his boots. His first free throw wasn’t even close. The second one was closer, but even Sister Jean couldn’t have willed that one in. Wagner secured the rebound and called timeout, and Beilein had QB1 Isaiah Livers on the ball to make the inbounds pass.

At this point, both Duncan Robinson and Charles Matthews had fouled out, so Michigan went with a lineup of Livers, Abdur-Rahkman, Moritz Wagner, seldom used guard Ibi Watson and Jordan Poole. Similar to the Maryland game, Livers delivered a strike to Abdur-Rahkman that found him just short of half court. Against Maryland, Abdur-Rahkman slithered his way all the way to the basket before being clotheslined and calmly sinking two free throws.

But Houston obviously knew that was coming, and opted to double team Abdur-Rahkman by sending man bun and his pal over the second he crossed half court. Wagner set a screen near the NCAA logo to free up Abdur-Rahkman, Livers sprinted straight toward the basket for an offensive rebound, and Ibi Watson, bless him, literally just tried to stay the hell out of the way.

Abdur-Rahkman delivered a perfect pass to Poole, who enters the picture with three seconds to go and his hands in a triple-threat position ready to catch the ball. Because Watson is standing there, he’s actually kind of in the way of the Houston defender, who I guess assumes Watson could be a threat (For reference, Watson made nine three-pointers all year and hasn’t scored since January 18th). That half a second difference between the defender staying near Watson and closing on Poole was ultimately the difference. And then, chaos.

You’ve all probably seen the shot, the reaction, and everything that accompanies it. But what you might not be as aware of is the Jordan Poole freshman year story at Michigan. Poole only played four minutes in Michigan’s first four games, as defensive issues kept him off the floor for large portions. But his shooting stroke is undeniable, and John Beilein had no choice but to make him a larger part of the rotation going forward. He knocked down three consecutive threes in the span of two minutes against Maryland at home, was excellent in Michigan’s final three Big Ten regular season games, and then didn’t make a single three-pointer in the Big Ten Tournament.

He only played 11 minutes on the night, as Abdur-Rahkman and Matthews have been playing the majority of the minutes at the “2” and “3” position. But on a night where Michigan needed a hero, any kind of crazy miracle, it feels fitting that the goofy freshman from Milwaukee, Wisconsin was the guy for the Wolverines.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: Michigan played two of their worst consecutive games and found a way to win both. Wagner, Abdur-Rahkman and Simpson have all established no offensive rhythm, the Wolverines have been in foul trouble from the moment they landed in Wichita, and the three-pointer, the great equalizer, has been missing for large stretches of games. If Michigan wants to keep playing, all of those have to change.

Michigan has three days to prepare for one of the toughest remaining opponents in the Sweet Sixteen. Texas A&M just dismantled North Carolina, and boasts one of the toughest and best frontcourts in the entire country. They’re led by star Tyler Davis, a 6’10” center who does most of his work around the wing. His starting frontcourt mate is Robert Williams, a bruising low post player who lacks deft shooting touch but can dunk your face off at a moment’s notice.

Their frontcourt also includes D.J. Hogg, a 6’9” combo forward who can stretch the defense but also averages right around five rebounds per game. Those three start, and stretch five Tonny Trocha-Morelos is a 6’10” senior from Colombia who attempted nearly half of his shots from behind the arc this season.

In the backcourt, freshman T.J. Starks and junior Admon Gilder have been doing most of the heavy lifting for the Aggies down the stretch. They both average over 10 points per game, but Starks went 36 in his first two games while Gilder also added 30. Savion Flagg and Jay Jay Chandler are bigger guards who can probably spell either player for about 10 minutes a game, but don’t expect too much scoring punch from either one.

Michigan’s matchup with the Aggies will be predicated on which team is able to take advantage of their style more. A&M loves to get up and down and find Williams and Davis for easy buckets in transition, while Michigan is much more of a methodical slow burn (that is, when they’re actually making shots).

If Michigan is able to sneak past A&M, and that’s a big if, they’ll either see Gonzaga or Florida State. I’ve already been on record saying I love this Gonzaga team, and they appear to have found their new scoring spark this weekend in Boise. Freshman Zach Norvell, Jr. had himself a weekend, going for 43 points over the two games and knocking in the game winning three-pointer to get Gonzaga past UNC Greensboro.

Rui Hachimura, the Zags most effective bench player all season, had 25 points against Ohio State after only going for four in the first game. He’s a burly 6’8” forward that could give Michigan trouble, especially with his rebounding ability as well. The player I keyed in on in the region before the tournament started was Killian Tillie, but the Frenchman only has nine points in two games.

Gonzaga’s backcourt is as solid as they come, with veterans Josh Perkins and Silas Melson leading the way. The other two players in Gonzaga’s seven man rotation include Johnathan Williams, who like the other WIlliams on Texas A&M, mostly finishes around the rim and provides thunderous dunks. Corey Kispert will rotate in as well, and while he’s not a threat to score 30, he provided some clutch shooting against UNC Greensboro when Gonzaga desperately needed it.

The other potential matchup would be against Florida State. The Seminoles are mostly a collection of 6’4” to 6’9” wings who can all attack the basket and knock down the long ball. This starts with Braian Angola, Terrance Mann and Phil Cofer, three rangy wings that all average just under 13 points per game.

C.J. Walker, M.J. Walker and P.J. Savoy all have the ability to go for big games as well, but Savoy is the probably the biggest threat from the outside. Mfiondu Kabengele is extremely active around the rim, and is an excellent offensive rebounder. I’d also remiss not to mention Florida State’s starting center, Christ Koumadje from Chad, who is 7’4” and maybe weighs 200 pounds soaking wet. Both teams present unique challenges, as Florida State wants to beat you in transition and by knocking down three-pointers while Gonzaga prefers to play inside out to establish Williams, Tillie and Hachimura.

At this point, every team playing in the Sweet Sixteen deserves to be there. Michigan is extremely lucky to be in this position, but as the highest remaining seed in the region (and on the entire left side of the bracket), there’s no reason this team isn’t talented enough to win two games in Los Angeles. If they continue to shoot the ball the way they did against Montana and Houston, they could be easy pickings for Texas A&M. But if they can find a way to raise their offensive game to even marginally better, the defense could be enough to throw some Poole parties in Texas.