BROOKLYN, N.Y. — It has been a whirlwind week for the Michigan men’s basketball team, but the Wolverines are finally where they want to be — playing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It may have been the strangest path Michigan has ever taken to get there. Thanks to a three-day Big Ten Tournament run that included victories over Northwestern and conference champion Indiana, and then a First Four victory over fellow No. 11 seed Tulsa on Wednesday, the Wolverines have earned the right to play No. 6 seed Notre Dame at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Friday. It will be their fifth game in nine days, spanning three different states.
“This has certainly been unique being in the First Four and now moving forward,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That was something brand new.”
The Wolverines’ unique road also made for some unique travel circumstances. With the game in Dayton tipping off at 9:10 p.m., Michigan was forced to travel to Brooklyn overnight after knocking off the Golden Hurricane. The Wolverines didn’t arrive in New York until 4 a.m. and had a wake-up call of 12:45 p.m. — according to Beilein, maybe the latest wake-up time he has ever set.
Michigan’s legs may be tired, but it certainly won’t be catching a break against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame doesn’t play particularly fast — according to advanced stats guru Ken Pomeroy’s website, its estimated tempo is 318th among 351 Division I teams — but the Fighting Irish have five starters averaging double-digit scoring. They also love to shoot from the outside, as four of the starters attempted more than 100 3-pointers this season and the team shot 36.9 percent.
The Wolverines have their own group of dangerous outside shooters — redshirt sophomore guard Duncan Robinson, junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. and junior forward Zak Irvin — but it may be difficult for them to create space and also hold off Notre Dame’s offense, especially with potential fatigue setting in.
Robinson, though, isn’t concerned about that.
“We’re all 19-, 20-, 21-year-old kids,” Robinson said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that (fatigue) is always a factor. … I wouldn’t expect it to be a problem tomorrow.”
Michigan did take it especially easy Thursday afternoon in Brooklyn, conducting only a walkthrough session in its hotel ballroom and a light 40-minute open practice at the arena — half of which was devoted to stretching and foul shooting.
The Wolverines have little idea what to expect from the Fighting Irish — despite the storied football rivalry, the two teams have met in basketball just 22 times, with Michigan leading the all-time series 15-7. The two teams haven’t met since the 2006 NIT, and Beilein hasn’t faced off against Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey since Jan. 9, 2007, when Beilein was coaching at West Virginia.
“Mike continues to have great players and run great stuff,” Beilein said. “Just go back nine years ago — they’re gonna throw the ball in the post with really good post players, they’re gonna have point guards that are excellent and they’ve got enough shooters all over the place. … You’ve got to be able to come ready to play, be ready to handle a lot of really good individual players and some great schemes that he runs.”
One possible advantage the Wolverines might have is that they’re already in the NCAA Tournament do-or-die mindset — unlike Notre Dame, Michigan has been fighting for its life for a week now and already has a tournament win under its belt. In fact, since the First Four began in 2011, every non-16 seed who won their First Four game on Wednesday has advanced to the second round.
“There are some advantages to it, definitely,” Robinson said. “You kinda get that rust off. That’s kinda the approach last week we had with the Big Ten Tournament — we had just played Northwestern the night before and went into overtime, and Indiana had yet to play a game yet.”
The Wolverines and the Fighting Irish have another late tip-off: 9:40 p.m. on Friday night. The winner will advance to face the winner of the matchup between No. 3 seed West Virginia and No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin, which will take place earlier Friday evening.