Eight teams from the Big Ten were selected to play in this year’s NCAA tournament. Three of those teams, including number two seeds Michigan and Michigan State, opened the tourney in Des Moines. I made my way to Des Moines to catch the “Big Ten Invitational” in person, and for the second week in a row, my weekend started with back-to-back-to-back-to-back games. Life is good. Without further ado, that day that was.
Minnesota 86 – Louisville 76
It’s impossible not to like Jordan Murphy’s game. With his blend of power and grace around the basket, the Gophers’ all-conference forward is one the country’s, not just the Big Ten’s, better big men. But Minnesota is far from a one-man team, and for Minnesota to play its best, for the Gophers to advance, they need production from more players than just Murphy. Murphy got his points Thursday, 18 of them to be precise, but it was guards Amir Coffey and Gabe Kalscheur who led the way in Minnesota’s opening round victory over Louisville.
Louisville seemed intent on not letting Murphy beat them, as the Cardinals opened the game by aggressively doubling inside on both Murphy and center Daniel Oturu. With the defensive focus in the paint, opportunities were present for other Gophers to contribute. Contribute, they did, led by Kalscheur and Coffey, who combined for 42 points.
In many ways, Coffey is the key to Minnesota’s success. When he’s on his game, the Gophers are tough to beat. Coffey was on his game Thursday, and when Kalscheur is raining in three-pointers like he was against the Cardinals, the Gophers are nearly impossible to beat.
After the game, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said he could tell early on that Coffey was “locked in” but bristled at the notion that Coffey has been inconsistent, adding that, “Amir’s been pretty locked in over the last month.” Pitino added that with it being the NCAA tournament, “If you’re not locked in now, it’s probably problem.” For Pitino and the Gophers to challenge Michigan State in an all-Big Ten affair Saturday, Coffey and Kalscheur will need to be locked in again.
Michigan State 76 – Bradley 65
It’s tempting to describe Michigan State’s opening round victory over Bradley as one that followed a familiar script: The Spartans were challenged in the first half and stared down a second-half deficit before ultimately prevailing with a double-digit win. But to suggest that Tom Izzo’s Spartans simply couldn’t find the next gear against Bradley would be doing the Braves an injustice.
Bradley coach Brian Wardle said after the game that he was proud of his Braves and the way they played, and added, “I don’t think there’s many teams that could have beat us today. I thought we might have run into one that could.” And he’s right. Bradley didn’t look much like a 15 seed, matching the Spartans in points and physicality for much of the game. Izzo agreed, praising Bradley after the game, particularly point guard Darrell Brown and forward Elijah Childs. The pair finished with 17 and 19 points, respectively. Childs, who scored 11 of his 19 points in the first half, had a lot to do with the Braves going into the locker room with a halftime lead.
But if there was part of this game that did follow a Spartan script, if you will, it was the continued ascension of Xavier Tillman, who finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and the steady hand and clutch shot-making of Cassius Winston. As he’s done all season, the Big Ten player of the year hit big shot after big shot down the stretch keeping the Braves at bay.
With the victory, the Spartans advance to play a familiar foe in Minnesota. After the game, Izzo noted that Minnesota, with its more traditional reliance on big men Murphy and Oturu, might be a better match-up for the Spartans. That may be true, but the extent to which the Spartans are able to keep players like Coffey and Kalscheur in check will ultimately decide who advances to the Sweet 16.
Florida 70 – Nevada 61
In the only game of the day not involving Big Ten teams, Florida held off a furious Nevada rally to advance to play Michigan in the round of 32.
It was an intriguing match-up, because while Nevada finished the regular season with only four losses, the Wolfpack didn’t play the toughest of schedules and was largely unknown. How would they play against a Florida team that plays in the tough SEC, but finished with a .500 conference record?
Starting five seniors, all whom stand 6’7” or taller, the Wolfpack looked to be a difficult match-up for the younger, smaller Gators. Someone forgot to tell that to Florida, though. The Gators controlled the pace for the majority of the game, and their ever-attacking offense led to an 18-point lead at the 14-minute mark of the second half.
However, just when it seemed Florida coach Mike White was thinking about emptying his bench, Nevada pressed its way back into the game, and at one point cut the lead to just a basket. Florida was able to gather itself, though, and ultimately turned back the Pack.
Florida received a balanced scoring effort with four starters finishing in double figures, including 16 points on five-of-six shooting from center Kevarrius Hayes. It was guards Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Andrew Nembhard, however, that drove the action for the Gators.
Florida will need a similar performance out of its guards against Michigan, but against defenders like Zavier Simpson and Charles Simpson, that will be no easy task.
Michigan 74 – Montana 55
In last season’s NCAA tournament opener, Montana ran out to a 10-0 lead over Michigan. That wasn’t the case this time around, as Michigan, in a very workmanlike manner, controlled the game from beginning to end.
Michigan shook off the disappointment of losing in the Big Ten title game last Sunday and handed the overmatched Grizzlies a 19-point defeat. The Wolverines played well defensively and shot 49% from the floor and nearly 80% from the line en route to their 74 points, but if there was a takeaway from the game, it was the return of Charles Matthews. True, Matthews returned from injury in the Big Ten tournament last weekend, but he was slow to return to the offensive flow. That wasn’t the case Thursday, as Matthews was active and involved from the opening tip. Matthews finished with a game-high 22 points on an efficient eight-for-12 from the field and added ten rebounds. It wasn’t just that Matthews scored that was significant, but that he was looking to score, something he hadn’t been doing a lot of since returning from injury.
Michigan received balanced scoring, with Ignas Brazdeikis, Jon Teske and Jordan Pools joining Matthews with double-digits in points. Zavier Simpson only scored four points, but added ten assists and seven rebounds and had a lot to do with Matthews being involved as much as he was.
Beilein has talked about Matthews’ importance to the team and how important it was for the team to get him back into the flow, so to speak. “The last two days (in practice) we tried to get the ball back in Charles’ hands,” Beilein said, “(to) make him make decisions to just get him back.” Matthews’s return to form was a welcome sight for Wolverine fans, because Michigan it hopes to replicate its tourney run from a year ago, it will need a healthy and engaged Matthews.