For weeks, the Michigan Wolverines were among the favorites to win the National Championship after an 18-1 start to the season and a Big Ten regular-season championship. Then, the Wolverines dropped three of their last five games of the season and lost a senior leader in the process in Isaiah Livers. Hesitation to crown them as a favorite was justified.
Experts and analysts across the country picked the Wolverines to be the first No. 1 seed to fall and many left the Wolverines out of their Final Four. These decisions came largely because of the news that Livers would likely miss the remainder of the season with a foot injury. Still, Michigan has found its way into the program’s fourth-consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance. They are the only team remaining in the tournament from the Big Ten Conference.
The win over Texas Southern was expected. A 16-seed has only beaten a 1-seed once in the history of college basketball. Even without Livers, there wasn’t really a chance that was going to happen. Michigan leaned on their big men against a much smaller roster. Austin Davis, Hunter Dickinson, and Brandon Johns Jr. combined for 34 of the Wolverines 82 points and the team outrebounded Texas Southern 38 to 28.
It was a workmanlike performance against a Texas Southern team that was dead last in the NCAA with 4.5 three-pointers made per game this season. The Tigers were only 35.9 percent from the field and were 1-of-12 from deep.
It was not necessarily the prettiest game for Michigan, either. They had 14 turnovers, shot just 34.6 percent from behind the arc and didn’t finish strong after gaining a 24-point advantage. Texas Southern actually outscored the Wolverines in the second half by a margin of 42-40.
The biggest development of the game was the use of freshmen, specifically Terrance Williams. It appears Juwan Howard found the guy off the bench who would fill the minutes of Johns Jr., now in the starting lineup for the injured Livers.
Martelli spoke highly of Williams before the season saying, “Terrence Williams impacts winning, so he’ll have that opportunity to get out there, make some mistakes. He doesn’t think young, he doesn’t act young and he doesn’t play young.”
He is going to have to live up to those words. Mistakes were certainly made by Williams against LSU. Late in the game, he dribbled right into the Tigers’ half-court press and turned the ball over for an easy layup. He also was picked on defensively by LSU guard Javonte Smart, who would call isolation plays whenever Williams was caught in coverage on him.
Williams did look good on the offensive end, though. He showed that he can work within the flow of the offense, earning five assists in just 20 minutes of game time. He is going to have to continue to play well of the bench to make a potential championship run easier.
An area of concern for any top team in the tournament is when an opposing player is shooting the lights out of the gym. It’s caused so many upsets in the tournament already this season (see Oral Roberts) and it happened to Michigan against LSU.
Cameron Thomas had 15 points in the first 12 minutes of the game, shooting 5-of-7 and lighting up the scoreboard in the blink of an eye. Mike Smith and Eli Brooks were switching in coverage on him, but the lengthier Thomas shot over them repetitively.
Michigan found itself down 29-21 around the eight-minute mark of the first half, and that is when Howard switched up his defensive schemes out of a timeout. Michigan started to throw everything at LSU, a zone, a full-court press, then back to man-to-man and it disrupted the Tigers’ offensive sets. Howard also swapped the longer, more physical Franz Wagner into coverage on Thomas and it completely altered the course of the game.
These defensive changes got LSU’s best player out of his groove, and Michigan never let him get back into it. After the timeout, Thomas was 5-for-16 for the remainder of the contest.
When the Tigers cooled off, Michigan kept scoring because they began to play more through Hunter Dickinson. Even if Dickinson touched the ball for a moment, LSU immediately double-teamed him. The Wolverines swung the ball from corner to corner and there was almost always someone late to either Chaundee Brown or Brooks in the opposite corner. That combo had 42 of Michigan’s 86 points in the game and hit a combined 8-of-17 three-pointers. The rest of the team was 2-for-8 from behind the arc.
They were a huge spark as Wagner and Smith were all out of sorts for a large majority of the game. Those two accounted for half of Michigan’s 12 turnovers and had some pretty ugly stretches on both sides of the ball.
This is the beauty of this Michigan team. Even without Livers on the court, Michigan has enough weapons to contest with one of the highest-scoring teams in the country. LSU was 11th in scoring this season averaging 81.8 points per game, and the opening of this game showed you why. If they play at a fast pace and are hitting their shots, they can run up the score on anybody. But, the Wolverines did enough to hang in the game, shifted the momentum with different defensive alignments, and then overcame a deficit playing their own basketball.
Everything seems to be coming together here for Michigan as they enter the Sweet Sixteen. The team has already faced adversity in the first weekend of the tournament in one of the best games of the season against LSU. Howard proved he can make in-game adjustments and lean on guys he normally doesn’t have to when the game is on the line. If this stays consistent, the Wolverines will have a legitimate shot of competing with every team remaining in this tournament.