Tennessee came into the NCAA tournament playing as well as any team in the country. Winners of eight straight, including victories over top ten teams Auburn and Kentucky, the Volunteers were fresh off their first SEC tournament championship in more than 40 years. They also had success outside the SEC, defeating both North Carolina and Arizona.
When the NCAA tournament bracket was announced, the consensus was that Tennessee probably deserved a higher seed than the #3 seed they were awarded. The Vols were even a fashionable dark horse Final Four pick.
And for good reason. Led by the triumvirate of Kennedy Chandler (13.9 points and 4.7 assists per game), Josiah-Jordan James (10.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game) and Santiago Vescovi (13.3 points per game and a 40% three-pointer shooter), Tennessee was a tough match-up for any team. The Vols also had 7’0” 260 lb. Uros Plavsic, a big body to guard Michigan’s seven-footer in the middle, Hunter Dickinson.
For Michigan, a team plagued by inconsistency and tumult throughout the season, a second-round match-up with Tennessee seemed daunting. Indeed, there were some Michigan fans whose hope was simply that Michigan could keep the game close.
When the game tipped off, Juwan Howard’s Wolverines showed they were interested in doing more than just keeping it close. Buoyed by the return of DeVante Jones (who missed the Wolverines’ tournament opener in concussion protocol), Michigan jumped to an early 10-2 lead. Tennessee, however, wasted little time in responding, using a quick 6-0 spurt to cut the lead to two, at 10-8. It would be a tense, closely contested affair the rest of the way.
Michigan got off to a good start, thanks in part to another strong performance from Dickinson. Dickinson scored 12 first-half points - six in the paint and six from beyond the arc. Dickinson hit four of his six first half field goal attempts, but he wasn’t alone in shooting well. As a team, Michigan shot 45% from two and 44% from three in the first 20 minutes.
Tennessee also brought its A-game. Led by James and Chandler, who scored 10 and nine first half points respectively, the Volunteers matched Michigan basket for basket. Tennessee played aggressively on both offense and defense, forcing Michigan into nine first half turnovers that resulted in 12 points. Tennessee finished the half on a six-point run and took a five-point lead into the locker room. With the Tennessee faithful as loud as they’d been all afternoon, the Vols appeared to be on the brink of pulling away.
Michigan didn’t panic, though. Much like they did in the first half, Howard’s charges came out firing to begin the second stanza, tying the game at 45, five minutes into the half. In addition to continuing their hot shooting, the Wolverines also maintained their strong defensive effort in the second half.
Led by Vescovi, Tennessee is a dangerous three-point shooting team. Cognizant of this, Michigan made it a point to keep the Volunteers from getting open looks from deep. Defending the perimeter as aggressively as Michigan did led to some easy lay-ups for streaking Volunteers, but it also held Tennessee to 2-18 shooting from deep - and prevented the Vols from going on any extended runs.
With four minutes to play, after six ties and 12 lead changes, the game was knotted at 62 and seemed destined to go down to the wire.
Michigan made sure there would be no late-game drama, however, and controlled the final four minutes of action. Led by Eli Brooks (23 points, with 18 coming in the second half), Dickinson (27 points and 11 rebounds), Moussa Diabate (13 points, six rebounds and three blocks) and Terrance Williams II (nine points and three rebounds in just 14 minutes), and some clutch free throw shooting down the stretch (11 for 12 in the final four minutes), Michigan pulled away for a 76-68 victory in a game that was much closer than the final score.
With the victory, Michigan advances to its fifth consecutive Sweet Sixteen - one of only six programs to make that claim since the field was expanded in 1985. The victory also extends the career of Brooks (who became the first Wolverine to reach the Sweet Sixteen four times) and gives DeVante Jones another chance to play in an NCAA tournament - something that eluded him his three years at Coastal Carolina (Jones’ day was cut short against Tennessee, retiring to the locker room with an undisclosed injury).
Advancing beyond the Sweet Sixteen won’t be easy. Michigan next faces its tournament kryptonite - Big East tournament champion Villanova - and has top-seeded Arizona waiting in the wings. But those battles are for another day. For now, Howard and his Wolverines celebrate a hard-earned trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Something many of Michigan’s most ardent fans can’t even say that they saw coming.