At long last, the NCAA Tournament is back.
After a one-year, pandemic-induced hiatus, the tournament returns to captivate and devastate. The Michigan men’s basketball team will embark on its journey through the madness on Saturday at 3 p.m., when it will play the winner of the first four matchups between Mount St. Mary’s and Texas Southern in West Lafayette.
The announcement, considering the heralded feat of attaining a No. 1 seed, seemed a tad humdrum. As little as two weeks ago, the Wolverines appeared primed to tear through March. Now, their fate is somewhat precarious. A semifinal exit in the Big Ten Tournament, coupled with a stress fracture in senior forward Isaiah Livers’s foot, dampened the hoopla.
And yet, Michigan earned a top seed — the program’s first since 1993 — along with an outright regular-season Big Ten championship for a reason. Even without Livers, the Wolverines possess the requisite talent to make a run. While they appear on the surface to have lost momentum, those within the program adamantly insist otherwise.
“I think I’d be lying if not every single player in that locker room fully believes that we are the best team in the country and that we will win the National Championship,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said on Saturday. “(We have) the utmost confidence in the rest of the players to step up.”
Will the Wolverines rekindle their February fire and actually do so? The Daily men’s basketball beat writers take a stab at predicting Michigan’s postseason fate:
Jared Greenspan: There’s been a lot of conversation about Michigan’s draw (as there always is), amongst pundits and fans alike, so let me preface my prediction with this: The Wolverines received a pretty fair draw. This is the NCAA Tournament. Each team in the field is here for a reason — they’re good. As simple as it sounds, it bears mentioning.
All that being said, Michigan certainly faces a challenging path to the Final Four, one only amplified in difficulty should Livers be unable to suit up. Barring an utter disaster, the Wolverines will advance into the second round, where either LSU or St. Bonaventure awaits them. The Tigers, boasting the nation’s fifth-ranked offense, could leave a depleted, Livers-less Michigan attack in the dust. On the other hand, the Bonnies, champions of the Atlantic-10, are led by one of the nation’s stingiest defenses at 17th overall. Sans Livers, the Wolverines may struggle to counter.
Should Michigan get past the first weekend, the slate hardly gets any easier. Florida State, buoyed by 7-foot-1 center Balsa Koprivica, is one of the few teams who stand equipped to slow down Dickinson. Should they clash with the Wolverines, the lanky and athletic Seminoles would be an undesirable opponent.
With Livers, Michigan would be odds-on favorite to advance out of the East region and waltz into the Final Four. Without him, a successful season suffers a sour ending in the Sweet 16.
Teddy Gutkin: While many will be quick to count coach Juwan Howard’s crew out in the absence of Livers, this is still a Michigan team that won a Big Ten regular-season title. With the sixth-best offense and seventh-best defense in the nation according to KenPom, the Wolverines are still very much a team deserving of a No. 1 seed.
For the Round of 64, let’s be blunt: whether it’s Mount St. Mary’s or Texas Southern, Michigan will advance. Awaiting them will be either LSU or St. Bonaventure. Neither matchup will be easy, but in March nothing ever is. The Wolverines have faced tougher competition and thrived during the Big Ten season, and I see them squeaking out a close win over the Bonnies’ stout defense to advance to the Sweet 16.
In the Sweet 16, Michigan will likely meet Florida State. While the Seminoles possess tantalizing athleticism, I think the Wolverines will ride a hot shooting night from outside and a few timely defensive stops to secure a date with 2-seed Alabama in the Elite Eight. Unfortunately for Michigan, the Crimson Tide are one of the hottest teams in the country right now. Led by coach Nate Oats, Alabama has proven that it can win in a shootout or a dogfight.
The Wolverines won’t be able to keep up without Livers. Michigan’s season ends on the doorstep of the Final Four.
Connor Brennan: Oh, how quickly the tables can turn. Just two weeks ago, Michigan stood as a prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten Tournament and reach the National Championship. Since then, the Wolverines were demolished by Illinois, fell to Michigan State in their regular-season finale, bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament a day early — from their perspective, at least — and lost Livers to injury. Now, with its mid-season momentum seemingly shattered, many think Michigan is the 1-seed least likely to make the Final Four. I, for one, agree.
While I’ve wavered back and forth about when the Wolverines might ultimately exit the NCAA Tournament, it’s entirely down to semantics and borders on irrelevant. As successful as Howard’s second season has been, anything less than the Final Four appearance will likely leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the Wolverines and their fans. The cabinet is certainly not bare, but without Livers, Michigan lacks one of its most essential ingredients. And so ultimately, the East Region won’t be won by the Wolverines — little else matters.
For sake of predictions, though, I’ll be more specific. On Saturday afternoon, the Wolverines will thank either Mount St. Mary’s or Texas Southern for coming out, before dispatching them with relative ease. In the second round, Michigan will probably play LSU — my apologies, St. Bonaventure — and while the Tigers have impressed lately, they don’t have a player in their primary rotation over 6-foot-9. Dickinson could have a field day.
Should the Wolverines make it to the Sweet 16, they would likely meet 4-seed Florida State, a trendy pick to beat Michigan. The Seminoles have five players who average at least one 3-pointer a game and forward RaiQuan Gray is a force on the boards. Led by senior guard Eli Brooks and sophomore wing Franz Wagner though, I think the Wolverines’ defense will do enough to slow down Florida State’s offense and advance to the Elite 8. There, however, Michigan will meet its match in SEC Champion Alabama. Between do-it-all wing Herb Jones, 3-point specialist John Petty and Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly, the Crimson Tide can score with anybody — especially a Wolverine team missing the shotmaking presence of Livers.
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