The Michigan Wolverines held on to grab the final No. 1 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament even while literally and figuratively limping to the finish line this season. Head coach Juwan Howard and his team have their work cut out for them without Isaiah Livers, but the selection committee laid out a path that may still be manageable for them.
Here is a look at the East Region of the tournament, which will take place entirely in the state of Indiana.
(1) Michigan vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s/Texas Southern
(8) LSU vs. (9) St. Bonaventure
This is a good opening-weekend pod for Michigan despite the unknown of how they might fare in the 8/9 matchup. Whoever emerges out of the 16-seed play-in game will enter the NCAA Tournament as the lowest-ranked team on KenPom. The Wolverines may be weakened at the moment, but Saturday’s game will be a much-needed tuneup to kick things off.
This sets up the winner of LSU vs. St. Bonaventure on Monday. LSU could be is the preferable matchup despite a top-five offense and star power on the roster. The Tigers rank 125th in defensive efficiency on KenPom and may not have the size to match up with Hunter Dickinson and company. The Bonnies (38th in AdjO, 17th in AdjD) could be a tougher draw. Either way, Michigan has its work cut out for them and their performance in that game could paint a picture for what their ceiling is in this tournament.
(5) Colorado vs. (12) Georgetown
(4) Florida State vs. (13) UNC Greensboro
Georgetown comes into the NCAA Tournament coming off of a Big East Tournament title and will be a popular upset pick, but Colorado (17th in Adj O, 29th in AdjD) was sporting a six-game winning streak before losing to Oregon State in the Pac-12 title game.
Florida State (10th in AdjO, 48th in AdjD) is a team that a lot of Michigan fans probably do not want to see again the NCAA Tournament. Leonard Hamilton’s squad has a ton of offensive firepower with length and athleticism to boot. We should be rooting for upsets in this pod or for Colorado to emerge. The Seminoles have not played well of late, but they still would not be the ideal matchup in the Sweet Sixteen if they get there.
(6) BYU vs. (11) Michigan State/UCLA
(3) Texas vs. (14) Abilene-Christian
BYU is one of the only teams out West that was able to give Gonzaga “competitive” games this season, but this feels like a prime spot for a Tom Izzo feel-good opening round victory after the play-in game. UCLA has been scuffling of late. I see whoever comes out of this game as a one-and-done team.
KenPom is lower on Texas (21st in AdjO, 36th in AdjD) than it is the four and five seeds in this region, but the Longhorns got what feels like an easy draw in the first weekend. Whoever they could potentially see in the Round of 32 is far from a guaranteed win, but this is the best team in this pod of games and they should be in the second weekend.
(7) UConn vs. (10) Maryland
(2) Alabama vs. (15) Iona
Anyone from the Big Ten might have a degree of being battle-tested that most teams in the field do not possess. However, Maryland has been scraping by all season. UConn has one of the best players in the country in James Bouknight and we found out how valuable he was to them when not on the floor. UConn was 15th in defensive efficiency before he was injured and was 53rd when he was out. They are fourth in that category since he returned. The Huskies have not been in the tournament in five seasons, but have a real chance to make some noise.
Alabama might be the favorite in this region given the uncertainty with Michigan. They are the second-ranked team on KenPom in defensive efficiency and Nate Oats is building something in Tuscaloosa. They will never be accused of being a basketball school, but the Crimson Tide are a Final Four-caliber squad.
Michigan was passed by Illinois in the one-seed pecking order but received a much better draw given their Livers-less situation. Barring the 16-seed channeling its inner UMBC energy, the Wolverines will find themselves in the Round of 32. Livers is questionable at best to return in the tournament, but there is a path to get hot with the players they still have available. A big three of Franz Wagner, Eli Brooks and Hunter Dickinson is still a trio of players that almost any team in the field of 68 would be thrilled to have. Mike Smith, Chaundee Brown, Brandon Johns Jr. and Austin Davis have a chance to cement their legacies as Wolverines, as well.
Getting through to the second weekend could be a spark that this group needs to come together and go on a deeper tournament run. They were able to beat Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament without Livers being a factor, so getting through LSU or St. Bonaventure is not out of the question. The Sweet Sixteen is where things pick up and FSU’s shooting and length could be a problem. Colorado is far from a slouch, either. One would still feel good about Michigan’s chances and preparation if they have five days of practice and watching the film.
It is difficult to project past that, as we just do not know enough about how this group looks post-Livers to safely project how they would fare against the bottom half of this region. Bouknight could be a player that sparks another UConn run out of nowhere, while Texas and Alabama are both battle-tested in their own ways.
The Wolverines are probably the most vulnerable of the one seeds in this field, but they have a draw that even Gonzaga could be jealous of. Both Baylor and Illinois will have to earn their keep on the other side of the bracket and it is far from a guarantee either is in the Final Four.
Getting to the Sweet Sixteen and simply seeing how it plays out from there should be the goal. This draw still gives Michigan a path to the Elite Eight. The potential also exists for a first-weekend exist. However, the work this group has put in and the response to every challenge that has come their way would suggest that this story will have an admirable ending.
Here’s to hoping they can find a way to make it a special and historic ending.
Michigan opens the tournament on Saturday afternoon against the Mount St. Mary’s/Texas Southern winner at 3 p.m. ET from Purdue’s Mackey Arena. The game will be broadcast via CBS.