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Michigan Reaches The Final Four, This Time With Its Defense

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Michigan vs Florida State Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, the focus was on Jordan Poole. The freshman hit the biggest shot in the last six years of Michigan basketball, sending Michigan on to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Lost was the idea that Michigan actually had two more games the following week to even reach to tournament’s biggest weekend, which would ultimately be a date with Texas A&M, not North Carolina, in Los Angeles.

As the game approached, the Los Angeles weather gods did not cooperate. On Wednesday and Thursday, it down-poured in Southern California, which gave the always meticulous John Beilein even less excuse to explore the Santa Monica pier and more time to prepare.

Despite the weather, Michigan fans packed into downtown Los Angeles, turning L.A. Live into Ann Arbor West. Bars and restaurants were full three hours before the game, with maize and blue clad fans of all ages waiting to see their team. They were in for a treat, but not the type of games the Wolverines had been playing up to that point in the tournament.

Poole, the aforementioned hero, came in early and received a raucous ovation. He jab-stepped, rose and fired a three-pointer over Tyler Davis, sending the crowd into an absolute frenzy. It was 5-0. Michigan never looked back, knocking down 10 three-pointers en route to a 52 point first half. The Wolverines continued their scorching hot shooting, making 14 three-pointers and shooting 62% overall to lead to a 99-72 victory over Texas A&M.

While there were many brilliant offensive performances, including 24 points from Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, 21 from Moritz Wagner and 18 from Charles Matthews, the most unlikely three-pointer came via an even unlikelier story. Student manager turned walk-on C.J. Baird entered the game in the final minute with the game well in hand. The walk-on found an opening a few feet behind the arc at the top of the key, rose up and fired. Splash. The Michigan bench erupted, as if they had just won a championship. It was all smiles in L.A.

Then chaos happened. Over the course of the next three hours at Staples Center, the left side of the bracket went even more topsy-turvy. Fifth-seeded Kentucky, who had been given close to a cake walk to the Final Four, stumbled out against Kansas State. Back at the Staples Center, Gonzaga faltered without Killian Tillie against Florida State, as the Seminoles’ length and rebounding proved to be too much against the depleted Bulldogs. After all the fanfare about Xavier, North Carolina and Gonzaga in the region, the regional final pitted Michigan and Florida State. It’s just been one of those tournaments.

On Friday and Saturday, the sun finally came out. The L.A. Live area that was full with rain just a few days prior reached near perfection. Yet again, Michigan fans filled the bars and most certainly filled the arena, occupying somewhere between 80-90% of the completely sold out Staples Center. But when the game tipped, the Wolverines knew this would be nothing like Thursday.

Both teams struggled mightily to score, but the Wolverines eked out a 27-26 halftime lead. Despite Florida’s State success on the perimeter, Leonard Hamilton (more on him later) elected to throw the ball into 7’4” monster Christ Koumadje for the first three Seminoles’ possessions. This was baffling for a lot of reasons, mainly that FSU’s success predicated on driving the ball to the basket or grabbing offensive rebounds on long misses.

While Koumadje tried to guide the ball into the basket on one end, Charles Matthews was doing his thing on the other. The redshirt sophomore had everything going, including a pair of dunks, mid-range jumpers and even a three-pointer. But the story was Michigan’s defense. Even as Hamilton tried to play a chess match with reverend John Beilein, he stood no chance. The Wolverines’ defense allowed 44 points through the first 38 minutes, with only a few last-gasp shots by Florida State even allowing the Seminoles to break 50.

But before Michigan could escape, they had to make their free throws. All season, the one Achilles’ heel holding this team back are those damn shots that only count for one when the clock stops moving. The Wolverines had been in the bottom 50 of Division I basketball (there are 351 teams, for reference), and Saturday was a test to see how many they could miss and still pull out the victory.

Zavier Simpson missed the front end of a one-and-one, Abdur-Rahkman went one-for-two, missed a front end of a one-and-one, and Simpson went one-for-two to extend Michigan’s lead to 56-52 with 40 seconds to play. All told, Michigan had chances at eight points on four free throw trips, and left with two. Not the way to ice a game.

After a Phil Cofer putback, Duncan Robinson went to the line. The redshirt senior had just knocked in his first three-pointer to put Michigan up 54-44, seemingly putting the game out of reach. But Michigan fans know the most bizarre Duncan Robinson stat: when he scores six points or more, Michigan is 28-0 on the season. Robinson stepped to the line with only five points, and knocked in his two free throws to bring his total to seven. They could have just called the game there.

After P.J. Savoy missed a wild three-point attempt with under 15 seconds to go, Duncan Robinson secured the rebound and Hamilton elected not to foul. Given how Michigan had just converted two of a possible eight points, the decision to let the clock run out was baffling. Florida State could have tried to extend the game for another two or three possessions, but elected not to. Hamilton was asked about this by Dana Jacobsen after the game, and was irked by the question. With the Final Four on the line, Hamilton blinked while John Beilein didn’t.

As the clock ticked down, Staples Center nearly crumbled to the ground. Michigan fans went absolutely ballistic, and for good reason. Two games prior, their season was two free throws and 3.6 seconds away from being finished. Now, they’re two games away from winning the whole damn thing.

To understand how Michigan even got here, you have to start with Charles Matthews. Commentators often point out that Michigan’s starting small forward was a Kentucky transfer, a player with immense talent who simply couldn’t crack the rotation behind a glut of McDonald’s All Americans. Now, Matthews has transformed his game into driving and mid-range jumpers, and has become an elite defender. He was deservedly the Most Outstanding Player in the regional, finishing with 17 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 39 minutes. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t play last year.

Michigan’s second most important player was Zavier Simpson, the diminutive point guard who barely gets to six feet tall on his tiptoes. Simpson had nine points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals, but his defensive intensity set the tone and his ability to crisply run the offense with only one turnover shows how far he’s come this season. His jump shot is completely broken, but it doesn’t matter if he keeps playing at this level defensively.

Moritz Wagner has been the guy all season, but he simply couldn’t find his jump shot against Florida State. If he knocks down the first one, he can make four or five in a game, and he’s still a threat to do that in the final two games. His intensity and rebounding proved massive, and his ability to become an adequate defender kept him on the floor for as long as it did.

When Michigan needed a late-clock basket, it turned to Abdur-Rahkman, who has been Michigan’s Mr. Clutch all season. He only finished with nine points, but even his level of defense became markedly better as the season has gone on. He’s floated between afterthought and star, and appears to be completely comfortable in his role. For Michigan to win, he’ll need to continue playing at this excellent level.

The last Michigan star has been Duncan Robinson, who started his Michigan career as “just a shooter” and has morphed into a playmaker, defender and rebounder. Without Robinson, Michigan probably doesn’t have enough shooting, and his mismatch ability to stretch the defense but guard post players has been exactly what this Michigan team has needed.

Jordan Poole’s shot-making ability, Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske’s defense and Jaaron Simmons’ scoring ability have all been huge factors for stretches during this tournament run also. Besides for Simmons, it’ll fascinating to see how each one grows next season into a more defined role.

But the focus still remains on this year, with Sister Jean and either Kansas or Villanova standing between Michigan and a national title. Midway through February, this team couldn’t seem to buy a basket against a mediocre Northwestern team in the outskirts of northern Chicago. Thousands of miles and 13 wins later, they’re on the precipice of dreaming of their one shining moment.