Despite surviving the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman conceded, “We didn’t play well in Wichita. It kind of left a bad taste in our mouths.” Consider Michigan’s palate cleansed.
Michigan exorcised any demons it might have brought back from the first weekend of play in Wichita with its 27-point demolition of Texas A&M in the round of 16 Thursday night. The Wolverines struggled throughout the opening weekend, connecting on just 40% of their shots from the field and 28% from beyond the arc. They advanced on the strength of two strong defensive efforts and a buzzer-beater for the ages. But the Wolverines knew they hadn’t played their best basketball.
They have now.
In front of a maize-and-blue-heavy Los Angeles crowd, Michigan looked more like the team that ran through the Big Tournament and less like the team that slogged through two slugfests in Wichita. Or perhaps more succinctly, as Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said afterward, “It felt like we ran into a buzz saw.”
Leading the onslaught for Michigan was, well, everybody. Abdur-Rahkman led the way with 24 points, which came on an array of three-pointers and drives to the basket. Abdur-Rahkman, along with Charles Matthews and Zavier Simpson, was fearless in his forays in the paint, time after time driving into the teeth of the Aggie defense, and more often than not, living to tell about it. Mo Wagner and Matthews chipped in with 21 and 18 points respectively on a combined 16 of 23 shooting. Wagner was a perfect three-for-three from deep, and unlike the last few games, came out hot, finishing the first half with 14 points on five-for-nine shooting. Matthews, like Abdur-Rahkman, repeatedly found his way to the rim, and Duncan Robinson and Zavier Simpson also reached double-figures in a game in which the Wolverines shot 62% from the floor.
Overshadowed by the offensive explosion was another strong defensive effort by Michigan. Much of the talk leading up to the game centered around Texas A&M’s size, and for good reason. Very few teams feature a pair of 6’10” big men the likes of Tyler Davis and Robert Williams. The narrative leading up to the game was that Michigan would struggle containing the pair. Davis got his points, leading the Aggies with 24, but many of those came late, and the pair was never the dominant force that the Aggies needed them to be.
Michigan’s defense was once again led by the quick hands and feet of Simpson, who registered five steals in the first half alone, but it also got strong interior defense from Wagner, Jon Teske and Robinson. Robinson’s play was particularly significant, because while he’s almost always giving up size, Thursday was the extreme. After the game, while Robinson fell short of saying that he enjoys banging down low, he did say he was excited by the challenge of checking NBA-caliber big men.
With the win, Michigan advances to play a Florida State team that controlled its contest against Gonzaga, winning 75-60. Florida State is similar to Texas A&M in that it brings size and length, but the Seminoles bring more athleticism than did the Aggies. The Seminoles also bring depth, going ten deep, and a defensive intensity that the Wolverines can appreciate.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton and his players talked about the “junkyard dog” mentality of the Seminole defense, and the players have not only bought in, but embrace the concept of playing defense “for 94 feet.”
But it’s not as if Florida State doesn’t play offense. Terance Mann is Florida State’s leading scorer, but he gets help from, well, everyone. And like with their defense, the Seminoles come at you in waves. Florida State can attack you in a number of ways and plays fast, so containing the ‘Noles will be yet another challenge for the Wolverines.
Despite racing out to an early lead against Texas A&M, John Beilein said that he was never really comfortable. He said his goal was to win every four-minute period, and while the Wolverines didn’t win all of those four-minute periods, they didn’t lose them, either, maintaining their large lead throughout the game. Beilein likes to break the game down into these four-minute periods, and by advancing to the round of eight, the Wolverines find themselves just ten such periods away from a Final Four berth. Whichever team wins the majority of them this afternoon will likely be cutting down the nets in Los Angeles.