It was all set up for them. It was right there for the taking. A definitive claim to being champions of the Big Ten and a possible #1 seed in the NCAA tournament was available for the Michigan basketball team if they could have beaten Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament final.
So much for that. The Spartans crushed UM's dreams along with their hopes for the coveted top seed as they routed the Wolverines 69-55. Michigan had to settle for a #2 seed in the Midwest region, where they will have a chance to get back to Indianapolis.
Since the loss, pundits have seemed to sour on the Wolverines. At CBS, only two of the eleven "experts" picked UM to advance to the Final Four, and they both have them losing to Arizona there. Nate Silver gives UM only a 3% chance of winning it all, while he gives Midwest #4 seed and defending champ Louisville a 15% chance.
What are the chances that Michigan will be able to make it back to the title game, and perhaps win it this time? Much of our coverage this week will focus on Ohio State's chances in the tournament, but just for a moment let's take a look at our arch-rivals and their potential path to the championship.
Shooting: Michigan shot over 48% on the season, which is impressive in itself but becomes even more impressive when you consider that almost 40% of their shots come from beyond the arc. Indeed, UM shot close to 40% from distance, finishing in the top twenty in the country in that category. They are also excellent from the free throw line, shooting over 75% there.
Versatility: Big Ten MVP Nik Stauskas is not only a big-time threat from beyond the arc (44%) but can put the ball on the floor and take it to the hoop (ask Aaron Craft). If this was not enough, fellow wings Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson have almost identical skills. Coping with three 6-foot-6 wings who can shoot from distance and handle the ball will be a difficult challenge for most teams.
Experience: There is no substitute for experience, and when it comes to the tournament there is no substitute for the experience of getting to the Final Four. Michigan was there only last season, and most of its current starters were key players on that team. John Beilein is a veteran coach and his experience navigating the difficult Big Ten schedule the past few years has led to the success of the UM program the past two.
Size: Losing Mitch McGary to a season-ending injury meant that there were only two "big men" that John Beilein trusted to get any playing time: Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. While Morgan and Horford are experienced and dependable players, they are not especially intimidating on defense and have only a marginal offensive presence. Collectively they average over 32 minutes per game but they almost never get to the line, averaging less than three attempts per game.
Rebounding and physical play: Michigan has a reputation for playing "soft"; i.e. launching threes on offense most of the time and not going inside much. They rank an abysmal 303rd in the nation in rebounds per game and they were out-rebounded by both Ohio State (31-26) and Michigan State (38-28) in their last two games. If they get matched up against a physical team like the Spartans in the tournament, it could be a problem for them.
Clutch play: The biggest clutch players in last year's tournament run were McGary and Trey Burke, but Burke is now plying his trade in the NBA and of course McGary is out for the season. Nik Stauskas is a great scorer but he hasn't consistently shown the ability to be the go-to guy in clutch situations. Spike Albrecht made some big shots in last year's run, but he plays only 15 minutes per game on average as Beilein prefers to start freshman Derrick Walton.
Many observers feel that the Midwest region is the toughest region in the tournament this year, and I would be inclined to agree. Talk about experienced coaches: Michigan's bracket also contains teams coached by the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino (Sr.), and John Calipari. Less-accomplished coaches Bruce Weber of Kansas State and Rick Barnes of Texas also have loads of NCAA tournament experience.
The buzz right now is that Louisville is the hottest team in the country, but for my money that title should go to Midwest #1 seed Wichita State. After making a surprising run to the Final Four last season, the Shockers proceeded to go 34-0 this season. How can any team be hotter than that?
Besides Louisville and Wichita State, #8 seed Kentucky might be the most talented team in the tournament and one notable writer has even picked them to go to the Final Four after they took #1 ranked Florida to the limit in the SEC championship game. Another pundit urges us to not sleep on Kansas State (Midwest #9). And I haven't even talked about ACC runner-up Duke (Midwest #3), a team that beat Michigan 79-69 back in December.
Let's face it, this bracket is an uphill climb for almost any team. There are so many different types of challenges there it's hard to catalog them all. Can a Michigan team that is not at full strength and that has such obvious weaknesses survive these challenges? Time will tell, but I am guessing the answer is "no".
While I have enormous respect for the job that John Beilein has done this season, I can't see the Wolverines making it back to the title game. Still, I think most of the pundits are probably selling them short. They will obviously take care of #15 seed Wofford and probably have little trouble with the winner of Texas vs. Arizona State. I also think they are playing better basketball than Duke is right now.
My prediction: A close win over Duke lands them in the Elite Eight, but they fall to whoever survives the top half of the bracket.
So what do you think? Am I selling them short or giving them too much credit?