Michigan knew what it was up against in its second-round match-up against LSU. A team with NBA-level talent but with little structure. A team that relies heavily on one-on-one offensive play, but with enough talent to make that strategy work. Prior to Michigan’s second round game, Franz Wagner said the Wolverines had watched a lot of tape on LSU and expected the Tigers to play aggressively on offense. “They have a backcourt of two amazing players,” Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said. “We’re going to try to do our best to try to contain them.”
Michigan would find that was easier said than done.
This was particularly true with LSU freshman Cam Thomas. The SEC’s leading scorer came out firing. Burying contested shot after contested shot, Thomas recorded 17 quick points on six of seven shooting. Led by Thomas, Javonte Smart and Trendon Watford (the three combined for 36 first half points), the Tigers overwhelmed the Wolverines out of the gate and jumped to an early lead.
Watching the Tigers score seemingly at will, you wondered if there was anything Michigan could do to slow the Tiger attack. LSU built its lead to eight points at the 14-minute mark and seemed on the verge of blowing the game open. Despite being only six minutes into the game, it was getting late early for the Wolverines.
Enter Eli Brooks.
Brooks, the team’s MVP according to associate head coach Phil Martelli, kept the Wolverines in the game with his steady hand and scintillating shooting. Brooks connected on five of six first half shots (including three of four from deep) to help steady the ship. Brooks would finish with a career-high 21 points and seven assists.
With Brooks leading the way offensively, the Wolverines collectively adjusted and started getting stops defensively. Howard and the Michigan coaching staff made multiple adjustments, many of them subtle, to try to slow down the Tiger attack. At times implementing a soft, full-court press, at times switching to zone defense and constantly changing defensive match-ups. Anything to make LSU less comfortable. It took almost the entire half, but the Wolverines eventually caught the Tigers and went into the locker room with a one-point lead.
Howard’s coaching adjustments had a lot to do with Michigan’s first half comeback, but so did Michigan’s resolve. It was as if Michigan suddenly decided to match LSU’s aggressiveness and physicality. And it’s no coincidence that happened around the time Chaundee Brown entered the game.
Howard has often praised Brown, a three-year starter at Wake Forest before transferring to Michigan, for the way he’s embraced his role coming off the bench at Michigan. Brown discussed that role after the LSU game, saying his job is to bring energy to the Wolverines. “I just try to come in and be aggressive,” Brown said. “Hit open shots and defend my behind off.”
He did all of that against LSU. While Brooks paced the Wolverine attack in the first half, Brown did so in the second half, when he scored 14 of his 21 points. Brown was also a perfect six-of-six from the free throw line, with many of those coming down the stretch.
To say that Michigan fought back is not to say, however, that the Wolverines ran away from the Tigers. The second half was a back-and-forth affair with four lead changes and four ties. Michigan may have taken its final lead just inside the 12-minute mark of the second half, but it was anything but smooth sailing the rest of the way.
If Thomas led the Tiger attack in the first half, backcourt mate Smart took the baton after intermission, scoring 18 second-half points. The pair shared game-high scoring honors with 30 points apiece and never stopped attacking. But as the game went on, LSU’s shots fell with less frequency. And in a game of runs, Michigan was able to slow the Tiger attack just enough, control the pace just enough and run its offense just enough to ultimately take control of the game. How successfully did Michigan run its offense? The Wolverines recorded 22 assists on their 28 made baskets while shooting greater than 50% from the floor and and even 40% from beyond the arc.
After the game, Howard said Michigan’s motto that day was, “Empty the tank.” Something Michigan certainly did. And by doing so, in one of the weekend’s most entertaining games, Michigan took LSU’s best shot and survived. With the victory, Michigan advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth consecutive tournament and the sixth time in the past eight tournaments.
Michigan’s road won’t get any easier with a date with a very good Florida State looming this weekend. But that’s not something Howard or the team was talking about after the game. “Our team threw all their energy out there and laid it all out on the line,” Howard said. “Now they deserve to get some rest.”