It is natural to be pessimistic and paranoid as a Michigan fan. With a cold stretch to end the year, and a significant loss of Isaiah Livers, fears are at an all-time high despite the Wolverines earning their first No. 1 seed in nearly three decades. Suddenly, every other team in the East region just looks like an upset waiting to happen.
This is fear is not completely unwarranted; Michigan is more likely to lose over the next two weekends than it make the Final Four. However, every other team is flawed as well. Without disrespecting Mount St. Mary’s and Texas Southern too much, as we know anything can happen in the first round, perhaps diving into the numbers on No. 8 LSU and No. 9 St. Bonaventure could provide a little comfort heading into the opening weekend.
No. 8 LSU: A one-track mind
The advantage of playing in the Big Ten this year is that Michigan has seen just about every type of team. So if LSU (5th AdjO, 125 AdjD) makes it into the second round, it will not be too unfamiliar after facing both Iowa (2nd AdjO, 50th AdjD) and Ohio State (4th AdjO, 79th AdjD) earlier this season.
The Tigers’ goal is simple: let their shooters shoot. Their prolific offense is fueled by players who are solid from the mid-range and good enough behind the arc, including leading scorers Cameron Thomas (22.6 PPG) and Trendon Watford (16.7 PPG), as well as efficient shooters Darius Days (64.3 eFG%) and Javonte Smart (57.5 eFG%). While they may not lead the nation in any one metric, the offense as a whole is very solid.
One interesting quirk is that the team has one of the country’s lowest assist rates. This means that plenty of players are comfortable in isolation and taking pull-up jumpers, which feels like an opportunity for the Michigan defense. LSU takes 31.4 percent of its shots as jumpers (national average: 26.1 percent), but only makes them slightly more (39.5 percent) than the average team (37.2 percent), and assists them far less frequently (21.0 percent) than most teams (29.5).
This is because the Tigers are terrible on the opposite side of the ball — both Iowa and Ohio State rank significantly better than LSU on defense, which is truly saying something. The Tigers allow a 51.3 percent field goal percentage inside the arc and do not record many blocks, turnovers, or offensive rebounds. Their only areas of strength are three-point percentage, which can be fluky, and steal rate, which typically is not a problem for Michigan.
Should these teams meet in the second round, LSU would certainly put up some points. However, the Michigan defense has been dominant against two-point shots this year, and it seems difficult to expect the Tigers to shoot well enough to make up for their terrible defense, especially when trying to defend against someone like Hunter Dickinson. Teams catch fire all of the time in the tournament, so that could happen to spark the upset here, but on paper I do not think the Wolverines should be too worried here.
No. 9 St. Bonaventure: Balanced, but untested
The ninth-seeded Bonnies (25th) are actually rated higher by Kenpom than the Tigers (29th), though this should not be a surprise for a mid-major school. It is very difficult to really know how to evaluate them though, as they played just two non-conference games — neither against Power Six schools — and went 2-1 against VCU, the only other Atlantic 10 team in the tournament.
Despite the Iowa and Ohio State comps for LSU, in some ways St. Bonaventure is a better representation of what Michigan usually sees in the Big Ten. At 38th in AdjO, the offense is not exactly scary, but fairly decent across the board, and is supported by a pretty good defense (17th AdjD) like many mid-tier Big Ten schools.
The one low point is two-point shooting, which, as mentioned above, happens to be a strength for the Wolverines. Osun Osunniyi is not a very productive scorer despite his size, and none of the other main usage players are a big threat in the mid-range either. As cliche as it sounds, this could be an example of a mid-major simply running into a more athletic team that makes scoring extremely difficult at nearly every spot, even without Livers.
Osunniyi is more impactful on the other end of the floor, but he has not had to face someone as big and talented as Dickinson this season. The Bonnies do boast a top-20 defensive unit, but quality of competition is a big question mark. The best all around team they played was VCU, and the Rams are obviously known for their defense, so it is hard to know if they can match up against a team like Michigan that can attack from all over.
Stay cautious, but confident
Michigan earned a No. 1 seed based of off its body of work. Without Livers and with the late-season woes, it is fair to state that they might not be one of the four best teams in the country right now, but we have seen this team look completely dominant on multiple different occasions this year.
Neither of these teams should be overlooked; both are top-30 sides per Kenpom, meaning they are probably a bit underseeded. LSU’s offense is no joke and features a handful of players that are extremely confident and always looking to attack. St. Bonaventure has the makings of a dangerous Cinderella, with an experienced squad who just won both the regular season and conference tournament titles.
However, even without Livers, Michigan is much better than both of these teams. Kenpom considers both schools closer to Maryland and Rutgers than Wisconsin or Purdue, and both would have big challenges against the Wolverines, with LSU’s imbalanced approach or St. Bonaventure’s overmatched 1-to-5.
Upsets happen all of the time in March, and Michigan could definitely be a victim this weekend. But if the Wolverines do fall, it truly would be an unexpected event and one that should be seen as a huge letdown, as they are clearly a level above both these teams and have everything they need to take care of business and move on.