As they often do this time of year, narratives started flying around early for each of Michigan’s upcoming games. During the opening weekend it was LSU’s NBA talent and electric offense that makes frustrating shot after frustrating shot. Leading up to Sunday it turned into Florida State’s ginormous wingspan and defensive switches. Now the focus shifts to a pesky 11-seed who is looking to keep the dream alive.
UCLA may be seeded below these fallen opponents, but thanks to a surprising NCAA Tournament run, the Bruins now sit 16th-overall in Kenpom. With the 11th-best offense and 55th-ranked defense, this is a balanced team that could push the Wolverines on Tuesday. There are a few key ways that they are a little different than the Tigers and Seminoles, however.
Difference 1: Tempo
Traditionally, one big factor in Tournament upsets is a slower-paced game that helps the underdog limit the number of possessions. UCLA is near the bottom of the entire country (337th) in possessions, and this should be expected to continue in the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, both LSU (70th) and FSU (90th) play at a much faster tempo.
This is not a huge deal for Michigan, though. The Wolverines are below average in this metric as well, and Sunday was a great example of how they can be successful in a methodical game. The defense is more than capable of guarding for the entire possession, and Mike Smith is exactly the type of experienced point guard teams want with the clock winding down. Florida State’s traps caused Michigan to have much shorter sets than normal, but rarely did the shot clock pose an issue despite this disruption.
Should the Wolverines be down in the game, they can speed things up and score quickly if needed. Franz Wagner is always looking to attack the rim, and players like Chaundee Brown and Brandon Johns have also been willing to go at the defense at create some offense. UCLA’s tempo should not be a big concern.
Difference 2: Size and athleticism
The Bruins absolutely have some impressive players, and this is not Michigan against Texas Southern. At the same time, this is preferable to LSU and its lanky guards who can cause issues on both ends of the floor or FSU who ranks first in the nation in average height (UCLA sits 115th).
This should be a nice break for Smith, who has had to be creative navigating defenders the past two games, as well as Hunter Dickinson, who should have a good height advantage in the post. The Wolverines clearly found a way to deal with both previous teams’ length, but facing a squad like UCLA’s should swing the athleticism factor back in their favor.
Difference 3: Limiting assists
Entering Tuesday, the Bruins have allowed assists on just 48.4 percent of opponent’s buckets, which was on display against both BYU (20.0) and Alabama (30.0). Neither LSU nor Florida State is as strong in this area, and Michigan took advantage, posting 78.6 percent and 65.5 percent marks, respectively.
All season long the Wolverines have moved the ball well, and their assist-per-basket rate sits in the top 50 in the country. By making the extra pass to find the open man, or drawing the double team then feeding the slasher, Michigan has consistently posted high effective field goal rates and remained a top-10 offense.
Given the size differences listed above, it seems like the Wolverines will have a good chance at moving the ball around. Dickinson is likely to see some double teams in the paint, meaning some smart passing will find open shooters. In the backcourt, Smith and Eli Brooks will not be as oversized as much as they have been recently, meaning the whole offense should be open to them. The Bruins have been good at stopping ball movement, but that might not work as well on Tuesday.