As the football season proved, preseason rankings are next to meaningless. Accordingly, it did not take long to see that this basketball team did not belong anywhere close to the top 10, so expectations needed to be recalibrated. With that in mind, the Michigan Wolverines should enter the weekend feeling relatively positive about where things stand after extending their NCAA Tournament win streak to six straight seasons by upsetting Colorado State this week.
Of course, the talent on the roster means the ceiling is even higher than that, and this squad definitely has the potential to make it five straight Sweet 16s with a win on Saturday. However, Tennessee comes in as No. 6 in Kenpom and No. 5 in Torvik, meaning a much better performance than Michigan’s on Thursday will be needed to keep that streak alive.
This is not an obituary; the Wolverines can absolutely win this game. But given all of the disappointments this season, it needs to be said that winning a tournament game should help the young roster play a little more freely in the Second Round. Maybe this is not exactly house money, but the win over Colorado State means this year is guaranteed to not go down as a complete loss.
No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers (27-7) vs. No. 11 Michigan Wolverines (18-14)
On to the game itself. The Wolverines played pretty poorly offensively (especially in the first half) against the Rams, shooting just 28.5 percent from three and turning the ball over 15 times. Needless to say, this will not work against a top-five defense, and the Vols have forced many opponents into turnovers and bad shots all season long, including their eight straight wins.
The return of DeVante Jones should help some of the sloppiness, assuming he is able to play (and do so at his normal level). The whole offense looked out of sync for far too long Thursday, and against a disciplined defense, Michigan will need its point guard to lead the team into its highest percentage looks. It may sound simple to just take care of the ball and actually hit some shots from deep, but both issues are non-negotiable to win this one.
Freshman guard Kennedy Chandler has led the Tennessee attack this season and this is where the Wolverines really need Jones back. Chandler and backcourt-mate Santiago Vescovi are both good shooters and passers, and open looks nearly cost Michigan the game against the Rams. Jones, Eli Brooks, and Frankie Collins will need to keep the defense in lockstep, or else it will simply be too easy for the Vols to score.
Tennessee is much deadlier from behind the arc than shooting twos, though the overall number of three-point attempts is not astonishing. Nearly all of the starters are a threat, and the Wolverines are quite familiar with opponents lighting them up from deep. Given how difficult points are going to be on the other end, staying on shooters and not losing the open man have to be a focus for 40 minutes.
Michigan came to life in the second half behind Hunter Dickinson, but the size advantage is not going to be as significant as it was against Colorado State. Still, the Vols do not offer a Big Ten-sized center, and Plan A should be feeding the big man as much as possible. Dickinson was an extremely effective shooter in the first round, but was a little too sloppy moving the ball. The Wolverines need him, and Moussa Diabate, to be the x-factors against a defense that has looked tough in the paint.
The Rams found their early success by draining open looks then snatching up long offensive rebounds and loose balls off misses. The Wolverines absolutely cannot give up additional opportunities to the superior team on Saturday. Defensive communication is crucial on screens, on boxouts, and breaking through pressure. Tennessee has plenty of ability on offense and does not need defensive breakdowns to help make things easier. This will have to be Michigan’s most complete game of the season on both sides of the ball.