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Michigan looks to ‘guard its yard’ against LSU’s isolation offense

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LSU ranks No. 5 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Texas Southern at Michigan Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

When the top-seeded Michigan Wolverines take on No. 8 seed LSU on Monday night, expect no shortage of offensive firepower. Both teams rank in the top 10 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, with the Tigers checking in at No. 5 and Michigan at No. 7.

But despite shared success, their styles couldn’t be more different.

LSU’s offense is a three-headed monster of Cameron Thomas (22.8 points per game), Trendon Watford (16.5) and Javonte Smart (15.6) — a trio of matchup nightmares that play a predictable brand of isolation basketball. Nobody on the team averages more than four assists, and less than half of the Tigers’ 809 made baskets this season have been assisted. They rank outside the top 300 nationally in that department.

The Wolverines, on the other hand, play a style of team ball that has seemingly gone out of style as college basketball has become more individualized. Freshman center Hunter Dickinson leads the team in scoring, but every Michigan starter averages between 9.2 and 14.3 points.

The Wolverines’ offense is defined by its ball movement. LSU’s offense, on the other hand, is known for its lack thereof. Against a team that prefers to score out of isolation sets, Michigan’s defensive motto, “Guard your yard,” applies now more than ever.

“We’ve got to be connected with our coverages and stuff like that,” Wagner said during a Zoom call with reporters Sunday. “I think a huge part of that, like I mentioned earlier, we always say, ‘Guard your yard.’ Guard your player in a 1-on-1 situation cause Thomas and Smart, and obviously Watford, all the other players, are very talented and skilled, and it’s going to be very important for tomorrow.”

At the other end of the floor, the Wolverines will lean on their unselfishness. Mike Smith led the Big Ten in assists during the regular season and set a new single-game Big Ten Tournament record with 15 in the quarterfinals, while Franz Wagner has also blossomed into a borderline elite playmaker throughout the season.

Wagner has more than tripled his assists average from last season, and he posted a career-high six in Michigan’s Round of 64 win over Texas Southern. And from the sound of it, he’s ready to do it again.

“Just trying to get a win. If that’s me scoring 100 points or me scoring five, I don’t really care,” Wagner said. “Just trying to advance to the next round.”

Offensively, the Wolverines shouldn’t have many issues against an LSU defense that finished the regular season ranked outside the top 120 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Michigan will be without senior forward Isaiah Livers, who remains out indefinitely due to a foot stress injury, but the Wolverines should pose significant height problems for the Tigers given the size and length of Wagner, Dickinson and Brandon Johns Jr. That bodes well for the Wolverines given that the Tigers finished the season ranked No. 320 nationally in defensive rebounding.

But that won’t be where Monday’s game is decided. If the Wolverines want to punch their ticket to the Sweet 16, it’ll come down to whether or not they can “guard their yard.”