There was a time when the book on Michigan was that if the Wolverines got hot from outside, if they were raining threes, they could be a dangerous team. Never mind that such logic holds true of most teams, the implication was that if Michigan’s shots weren’t falling and the Wolverines found themselves in a dogfight, they weren’t likely to come out on top.
But that’s not the book on Michigan anymore. Not this season. Not this Michigan team.
Michigan advanced to the Final Four despite struggling offensively in three of its four tournament games. The Wolverines prevailed, however, largely because they played unforgiving defense. Michigan has held every team it’s faced in the tournament below its season scoring and shooting averages and has held its own on the glass, even against larger Texas A&M and Florida State teams. Michigan has forced its opponents into turning the ball over while not turning over the ball itself, and most importantly, the Wolverines have not let poor shooting affect their defensive effort. In fact, in the words of Michigan coach John Beilein, missing shots on one end of the floor has only resulted in playing even better defense on the other end.
Beilein said this team, “has a certain grit about it,” and that grit was on display when Wolverines defeated Florida State 58-54 in a dogfight of a game to advance to the Final Four. How gritty was Michigan that night? The Wolverines won on a night when their leading scorer was just three of 11 from the field, when as a team they shot a woeful 39% from the field and an even more woeful 18% from beyond the arc. Yet Michigan continued to battle the bigger, deeper Seminoles, ultimately prevailing.
After the game, Charles Matthews was asked what he would have thought if he would have been told that Michigan would win despite connecting on only 18% of its three-pointers. “We’d have to find a way to make it happen,” Matthews responded. And that’s exactly what Matthews and his teammates did.
Mathews himself was a major reason that Michigan made it happen. Named the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player, Matthews led the Wolverines with 17 points and 8 rebounds. On a night where Michigan’s outside shots weren’t falling, Matthews got his points primarily through short jumpers and drives to the basket. With Florida State extending its defense beyond the three-point line, Matthews found the open spots, continually finding his way into the paint and more often than not converting.
That’s not to say Matthews did it all by himself. Michigan also won because Duncan Robinson hit a clutch three-pointer late to seemingly put the game out of reach and a pair of free throws even later to actually do so, and because Zavier Simpson largely handled Florida State’s non-stop, full-court pressure. But Michigan wouldn’t have been in position to win were it not for its defense, which has quickly become the team’s calling card.
With the victory, Michigan advances to the Final Four for the second time in six years, where it will be the favorite in Saturday’s match-up against Cinderella and tournament darling Loyola-Chicago. If the Wolverines happen to advance to Monday’s title game, they will be the underdog against the either Villanova or Kansas. But for Michigan to win either game - for the Wolverines to even be in either game - they’ll rely on their defense once again. Or maybe twice.