Date: Friday, March 28
Time: 7:15 ET
Place: Lucas Oil Stadium--Indianapolis, Ind.
Somewhat quietly and without much fanfare or notice from the national media, Michigan, a 2-seed (i.e. a team with a legitimate shot at a national title, on paper) has advanced to the Sweet 16.
And yet, much of the focus seems to be on Tennessee, and to a certain extent rightfully so. The Volunteers have blazed an impressive trail, first putting the final nail in poor Iowa's coffin in the play-in game, then routing both UMass and Mercer, with the latter having been fresh off of a defeat of Duke.
If you've been paying attention, even Kenpom has had Tennessee ranked ahead of Michigan, going into the tournament. Yes, 11-seed Tennessee, ahead of Michigan. In some reseedings of the tournament field, some folks have ranked UT ahead of Michigan, too, including CBS's Jeff Borzello, slotting the Vols one spot ahead of Michigan.
Season So Far
For the most part, all you heard about the SEC as an outsider boiled down to two teams: the Florida Gators and the Kentucky Wildcats. Tennessee, however, finished 24-12 (11-7), just barely edging their way into the tournament field.
The Vols went an unimpressive 7-9 against the RPI top 100, but did score impressive wins against Xavier, Missouri and a 35-point thumping of 1-seed Virginia back on Dec. 30.
But, as they say, that's all in the past, and the Vols are rolling at the right time. Despite going down 8-0 early against the Hawkeyes, UT rallied back. Even after a Roy Devyn Marble tied the game with 18 seconds left in regulation, the Vols absolutely crushed Iowa in overtime by a score of 14-1. As Big Ten fans know, Iowa crashes the boards with ferocity (at least they did, pre-end-of-season-collapse), but UT held them to an ORB% of just 21 percent and a three-point percentage of 25 percent.
Against UMass, the Vols cruised to a 19-point halftime lead, which ended up being the final margin of victory. Jarnell Stokes led UT with 26 points on 7-of-11 shooting and 14 boards--Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford will have their hands full with the 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward.
Against Mercer, it was more of the same. UT led by 15 at halftime, and the Bears just didn't have another upset in them. This time, G Josh Richardson was the one with 26 points, on 9-of-13 shooting.
At this point, you can forget about seeding. This is a very dangerous and athletic Tennessee squad. Can they attack Michigan's weaknesses more effectively than Texas--who seemed to be a lesser version of what Michigan will face on Friday--did in Milwaukee last Saturday? My gut says yes, but whether that means a UT win or not remains to be seen.
The Vols' offense is led by senior G Jordan McRae (18.6 ppg) and the aforementioned Stokes (15.2 ppg). McRae is UT's most prominent and effective three-point shooter, with 220 attempts on the season converted at a 36 percent clip.
Otherwise, the other two most frequent three-point shooters, Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson, shoot 34 and 33 percent from downtown.
Freshman point guard Darius Thompson isn't much of a scorer (2.5 ppg), but he finished 3rd in the SEC (39th nationally) in assist-to-turnover ratio this season.
Stokes's frontcourt partner, Madison, Wis., native Jeronne Maymon, averages 10 ppg and is a very effective player on the boards, where he ranked fourth in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage during SEC play and 4th in defensive rebounds per game. Maymon also finished 8th in the SEC in free throw rate--so, he's your standard in-the-paint banger, but an effective one. Paired with Stokes, Michigan's frontcourt will have its hands full, even though the Vols don't deploy a true center much (6-foot-10 Rawane Ndiaye has played a combined eight minutes in UT's three tournament games).
- Avoid early foul trouble. Yeah, exactly what that says. Simply put, Michigan can't afford to take that sort of hit, especially against UT's front line of Stokes and Maymon. Michigan is not going to win the rebounding battle, but they don't need to: they just need to survive or stalemate, the latter probably being the best case scenario.
- You are getting verrrry sleepy. Slow it down. If you want, even pretend that this is football and all the normal stereotypes about pace are in play and oh no now I'm thinking about that bowl game back when. Either way, this is a pretty standard point for Michigan, generally irrespective of opponent. Run off of Tennessee misses, sure, but Michigan does not want to run up and down with the Vols, a team with all the confidence in the world right now.
- The X Factor. Glenn Robinson III has had a somewhat up and down season for a guy that's going to be a first round pick, but he has been very good for the Wolverines so far during this NCAA Tournament. Against Wofford and Texas, he shot a combined 46 percent from the field with 12 combined rebounds and 14 points in each contest. Michigan needs him to be aggressive once again. As I mentioned re: the Texas game and Jonathan Holmes, if GRIII can simply neutralize either Maymon or, wishfully thinking, Stokes, Michigan should be in good position to win this game assuming the shooters perform to even 75 percent of their normal capability.
- 40 minutes. As Zach already noted, the Vols have ambushed teams in the first half so far this tournament (except the beginning of the Iowa game, I suppose). Get to the half with a lead or, at worst, a modest deficit, and you'd think Michigan's chances through 20 minutes will go up significantly.
- Don't settle. UT has the length and athleticism to bother Michigan on the perimeter. That means, when an open look isn't there, the Wolverines will need to do the dirty work of probing the lane and finding those pretty dump-in passes for dunks to Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford when possible. Once that happens, Michigan should be able to free up a little space to get those shots off from downtown.
- Taking a punch. Another point Zach mentioned is UT's three-point shooting; Michigan likely won't have the luxury of another wretched performance from beyond the arc from their opponent. The Vols aren't a great shooting team, but, like Texas, they'll have their share of putbacks, not to mention transition opportunities. When Cuonzo Martin's squad does happen to hit a three or two, the Wolverines have to be ready to respond. Shellshock spells doom at this stage in the postseason.
In a nutshell, this game feels like a matchup against Texas 2.0. Despite a second half pseudo-scare, the Wolverines pulled away from Texas with relative ease; I don't necessarily see that happening this time around.
The Vols are firing on all cylinders at just the right time. Sure, they caught a big break in drawing Mercer instead of Duke, but, that's just the nature of the Big Dance.
It's not a satisfying answer, but as with the Texas game, this game will swing based on the rebounding battle (i.e. can Michigan avoid getting crushed) and whether or not Michigan can continue to hit the three like they've done all year. That's the thing; when you're a jump shooting team, you're constantly living on the edge. Trajectories conspire against you, and individual degrees in those arcs can be the difference between winning and losing. Then again, i suppose you could say that about any style of basketball. If the Vols are forced to play at Michigan's pace and don't get the second chance opportunities they need, they, too, will struggle.
A season's worth of data indicates that Michigan is the more complete team. Of course, once the music starts and the Big Dance begins, the past is but a suggestion.