I think we can all agree last year's tournament showing was disappointing. Last year, Michigan had to play in a Round of 4 game just to get in to the first round. When they did, John Beilein’s team blew a double digit lead against a Notre Dame team they should have beat. The season was fraught with question marks as 10 of Michigan's 11 losses were by double digits.
The ironic thing is, two games into the Big Ten Tournament, this year’s Michigan team had the same record as last year's team (and had just knocked off the #1 seed both times, as well). But if the Wolverines’ dominant play lately isn’t already a testament, this is not the same team as last year’s group, and they’re primed for a much deeper run in the NCAA Tourney. Here's why:
#1. The maturation of the Michigan big men
Last year, we screamed and buried our face in a pillow any time an opposing center got the ball down low. This year, even in some of our biggest losses, our bigs are not getting outscored and they’ve even learned they are allowed to block other players when they shoot. That is actually a huge plus in a Big vs Big scenario.
Sometimes, if you can at least score on a big, you can get him in foul trouble, which is sometimes just as good as blocking him. D.J. Wilson, in particular, can guard any position and contributes even when he is not scoring. Plus, it’s great to see Donnal on the bench. It was nauseating when he was our starting center, but he fills in just fine as a sub. It's safe to say our size is no longer our biggest liability on offense. As a matter of fact, it's one of our greatest assets.
#2. A deeper bench from which to draw
I don't know if you've noticed, but two starters from last year are now on the bench. It is a little sad, but it also means Beilein is recruiting better younger players and developing them. Donnal is a decent relief big and Duncan Robinson can completely change the pace and feel of the offense.
Meanwhile, the former Mr. Basketball of Ohio (Xavier Simpson) is coming along nicely. I am not saying he's the next Trey Burke, but he even in his limited playing time he is showing that he can do some things Walton can't do: like force his way into the lane. Look for little Simpson to get more playing time in the tournament and for him to do some special things.
#3. Zak Irvin is no longer our top scorer
I get it, everybody likes it when he buries a three in someone's face, but we're not at the neighborhood park trying to school Freddy from across the street. Michigan was great when Zak Irvin was our 7th or 8th best player back in the day, and now, with Walton being more aggressive and Wagner maturing as a player, we don't have to rely on him chucking up low percentage shots. Luckily he’s started to take better shots and his teammates have benefited from better looks.
#4. This team wins against higher quality opponents
As previously stated, 10 of our 11 losses last year were by double digits. This year, we only have 4 losses by double digits (the last coming on January 11th, the infamous “white collar” game). But this year’s team has won against six top-50 opponents, five of those coming since February.
#5. Mo Wagner is the Truth
Yes! I am on the German Vulksbandwagon! There are times he loses vision and can't pass himself out of tight spaces, true. He also gets into foul trouble just about every game (but he seemed aware of that against Wisconsin and did a good job), but the fact is that at the end of the day he can create scoring opportunities in ways NO one on that team can. Big men are not fast enough and guards aren't big enough to guard him. If only he can learn there are two halves in a game...
#6. Derrick Walton, Jr. is even Truthier
Boy, did we ever need him to have a big senior season and boy did he deliver. It's not just the freak game at Nebraska with 18 points, 16 assists (ridiculous), and 5 steals. It’s not just the 29 points and 9 assists against Minnesota. He's been stepping it up all year in ways that haven’t made the box score, and he’s only got more comfortable with the more games he’s played.
I’ll want to see how he will fare against bigger, stronger guards, but it’s hard finding guys as big and strong as Walton. This is a HUGE advantage for Michigan. John Beilein simply cannot win without a good/great point guard. His offense knows just as much about post moves as Warren Beatty does about reading cards. We will need everyone to contribute, but Walton's play is the X-factor.
#7. This defense is what wins the day, though
Taking A Look At The Midwest Region
I feel like 90% of any given tournament game is about match-ups. Last year, we had Donnal starting at the 5 spot, with Irvin at the 4 spot. That was a nightmare I hope I don't have to relive, since neither one of them could guard their opponents' position.
But this year, it's been Wagner and Wilson with Donnal coming off the bench. That has been a great duo in the Big Ten. Going into the Big Ten Tournament, three of their four wins against teams in the top of the RPI were because they held their offense under 60 points. Last year, that happened ONE time against Purdue and it was a pretty big fluke.
Last year, we gave up 80 points or more to opponents 7 times - all of them blowout losses. This year, we did it 5 times, 2 of those were overtime games, and the only one that was not a road game we won. We currently rank 38th in the country in points allowed.
#8. ..And they know how to follow through
Sure, the 2016 team upset the #1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament last year too, but the next day they got blown out by Purdue. This year, beating the #1 seeded Purdue was just the beginning. The day after, they soundly beat Minnesota and then dispatched Wisconsin in the championship, handling every run and challenge with resolve.
The miraculous thing is that Michigan lost in the regular season to ALL FOUR teams it beat in the Big Ten Tournament. That is more than momentum. That is inspiration. If a team is going to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, it doesn't need seeding, publicity or a plethora of NBA talent. It needs 8-10 guys who all know their role and are playing inspired basketball.
So, does this mean they are going to win it all? No, but it does put them in a great position to make a run. Being a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament comes with challenges, but being an 8 seed in a conference tourney is pretty rough, too - and Michigan aced that. I don’t think think this team is ready to go home just yet.
What do you guys think?