The Michigan Wolverines men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament opener went about exactly as it hoped. The Wolverines never had any problem with Texas Southern and no one got seriously injured.
Michigan’s 82-66 win over the Tigers is going to be forgotten pretty easily and pretty soon, if it hasn’t been already. That’s basically the best outcome you can hope for if you’re a 1-seed playing a 16-seed. Forgettable games are a necessity because things are going to get a lot tougher as soon as Monday.
LSU, the eighth seed in the East Region, looked impressive in a 76-61 win over a solid St. Bonaventure team in its own first-round game Saturday. The Tigers, who finished third in the SEC during the regular season, have won five of their last six games, the one loss being an 80-79 defeat to Alabama in the SEC Tournament final. They’re ranked No. 23 in KenPom, and it’s fairly easy to argue that they should have been seeded higher.
Dating back to Johnny Jones’ days as head coach, LSU’s played at one of the country’s fastest paces, and they do the same under Will Wade. Their gaudy offensive totals (82.1 ppg) aren’t just the product of that fast tempo, though: they’re fifth in the nation on offensive efficiency, per KenPom.
They aren’t a particularly tall team, they don’t force turnovers and they give away offensive rebounds like candy — opponents are grabbing nearly a third of possible offensive boards against them, which ranks 320nd in the country — but they’re good in at least one area on defense. Teams are shooting just 29 percent from three-point range against LSU, which is fortunate considering the Tigers allow opponents to take 43 percent of their shots from there.
LSU’s not big on ball movement: the Tigers assist on just 42 percent of their baskets, which is lower than all but nine teams in the nation. But they have enough shot-makers to hit a solid percentage from inside the arc, outside the arc and at the line, and they take good care of the ball as well. On offense, there’s really nothing they do poorly.
The Tigers will need to contest shots and hope for the best on the defensive end, and maybe throw a wrinkle or two at Hunter Dickinson. On offense, they’ll have to rely on their best players making big-time plays and getting out in transition. Here’s a quick introduction to those players.
If you only have time to learn about one Tiger, it should be Cameron Thomas, if you don’t know of him already. The 6-foot-4 guard is one of the best freshmen in the country, perhaps the nation’s most explosive scorer, and a likely one-and-done. Thomas patterned his game off that of his idol, Kobe Bryant, and wears the number 24 in his honor. That’s no small statement to make, but Thomas can back it up.
Thomas averages 22.6 points per game, the fourth-highest average in the country. His shooting efficiency numbers aren’t great — just 40.5 percent from the field and 32.0 from downtown. But that’s easy to forgive when you watch the shots he takes: contested floaters, off-the-dribble step-backs, no-hesitation pull-ups from 30 feet, at a ridiculously high volume to boot. Whichever Wolverine draws the primary assignment on the All-SEC First Teamer will be in for a long 40 minutes.
Got time for a few more? Great. Trendon Watford, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, is the team’s second-leading scorer with 16.7 points per game, and second-leading rebounder at 7.4 per game. He’s also a skilled playmaker for his size, as evidenced by his 3.0 assists per game, and he’s hit 18 3-pointers on the year.
Javonte Smart, a 6-foot-4 junior point guard and the apparent recipient of a “strong-ass offer” from LSU coach Will Wade three years ago, averages 15.9 points, 4.0 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game and is hitting 2.6 3-pointers per game at a 42 percent clip. He and Watford were both named second-team All-SEC earlier this month.
Darius Days, a 6-foot-7, 245-pound junior forward, averages 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Days can also stretch the floor: he’s shooting 39.7 percent from three on 4.7 attempts per game.
Thomas, Watford, Smart and Days make up LSU’s core four, and if they’re not producing, the team probably isn’t either. No other Tiger averages more than four points per game. Aundre Hyatt, Eric Gaines, Josh LeBlanc and Mwani Wilkinson can impact the game, but in ways besides scoring.
For LSU to pull the upset, Thomas might have to go ballistic, and he very well could. But with Watford providing physical scoring down low and Smart and Days on the perimeter, the Tigers aren’t just a one-man outfit. They have loads of athleticism and shooting, even if it’s concentrated almost entirely among four players, and they have a legit superstar to bail them out of bad possessions.
Wade doesn’t play a very deep rotation, and at some point, Monday’s game might start to look a lot like pick-up ball: you and yours vs. me and mine, your best vs. my best. If it gets to that point, it will be anybody’s game, considering the talent on LSU’s roster. If the Wolverines want to avoid that scenario, playing the game at their own pace — deliberate, smart basketball — is a must.
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