It’s been a hectic last month or so for the Michigan Wolverines. The team had to battle through a deep Big Ten to earn its way into the NCAA Tournament, needed marquee wins over teams like Purdue and Ohio State late to make the cut, and had to deal with what happened with Juwan Howard against Wisconsin just a few weeks ago.
The good news for Wolverine fans is that the team made the cut. Selection Sunday may have been more dramatic than fans might have liked, but Michigan made it and is now primed to face a dangerous Colorado State squad on Thursday afternoon. It figures to be one of the better games in the first round.
But can the Wolverines make some noise in March Madness? Let’s take a look at the bracket and what to expect.
As a bubble team, Michigan earned itself a spot in the Round of 64, but only by the narrowest of margins. The Wolverines landed as an 11 seed and will open up with six seeded Colorado State on Thursday afternoon. It figures to be a challenging game against a highly capable Ram squad who’s only lost twice since January. Add in the absence of DeVante’ Jones and things look even more challenging.
If Michigan is going to get past Colorado State, it’s going to take a big performance from Hunter Dickinson. The Wolverines have significantly more size and length than the Rams and will have to utilize it in the paint. Colorado State plays a deep bench, so foul trouble isn’t as big of a concern, but the possibility of getting some of Colorado State’s best players on the bench is there if Michigan really plays well down low. That seems like Michigan’s best route to victory.
Unfortunately, the loss of Jones is a big one. And Michigan’s defense faces a massive challenged in trying to slow down Colorado State, who boasts one of the nation’s best offenses. The Rams rank 20th nationally on KenPom and rely on quality shooting inside and outside the arc. The team also has a star contributor in David Robby, who leads the show on the wing, killing it both from deep and down low. Michigan will likely put Moussa Diabate on him, but can he hold up against a smaller player like Roddy? That’s going to be a tall task.
If They Advance
Should Michigan get past Colorado State, it would be looking at Tennessee or Longwood over the weekend. The Volunteers are obviously the opponent that looks more challenging, especially considering how well Tennessee’s been playing as of late. The team has won seven straight heading into the NCAA Tournament, including wins over Auburn and Kentucky and an SEC Tournament title.
Generally speaking, the numbers think Tennessee would be a pretty significant favorite against Michigan on Saturday. The Vols are now up to seventh on KenPom and boast one of the nation’s most balanced squads. The team is top 40 on both sides of the ball and isn’t overly reliant on any one player. In fact, five of the Tennessee’s rotational players have a usage rate between 20.8 and 24.9 when on the floor and there are a few bench options with decent numbers as well. There’s just no obvious weakness to pick out here.
If Michigan is going to somehow pull off the upset, it’s going to take otherworldly performances from a handful of players and some foul trouble for the Vols as well. Most eyes would be on Hunter Dickinson to step up. Uros Plavsic is more than capable of banging with Dickinson, but he’s not exactly an All-American. So, the potential for a bad outing against Dickinson is there.
Should Michigan win both games and advance to the Sweet 16, it would then likely be looking at a matchup against Villanova, Ohio State, or Loyola (Chicago). All three would be a major challenge for the Wolverines. The Wildcats are an incredibly balanced team, the Buckeyes already beat Michigan once this year, and Loyola (Chicago) has been one of the nation’s most consistent mid-majors in recent years.
If the Wolverines were fortunate enough to move on from there, they would be looking at a matchup against someone like Arizona, Illinois, or Houston. And a potential Final Four game would come against someone like Kansas or Auburn. Gonzaga and Baylor would be the favorites for potential national championship opponents.
Anytime you’re a bubble team, expectations for the Tournament aren’t going to be exceptionally high. Even if you like the team and its potential, you’re going to be an underdog out of the gate and almost assuredly will have to beat an elite seed after that to even get past the first weekend, let alone the challenges that present thereafter. It’s just hard to look at a team with middling numbers pulling something like that off.
With that said, there are some reasons for optimism for this Wolverine squad. The team has a highly winnable opening round matchup (KenPom actually favors Michigan), plenty of talent on the roster, and players who could very well be trending up like freshmen Diabate and Caleb Houstan. The potential second round matchup with Tennessee also isn’t impossible, even if the Vols are incredibly balanced. Get a player or two hot and exploit a matchup down low and perhaps you can pull off some magic. If so, maybe Michigan can make up for what’s been a relatively down year in Ann Arbor.