LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The Michigan men’s basketball team felt slighted two days ago.
In the Wolverines’ annihilation of Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, Michigan’s shots fell so frequently that even freshman guard Jordan Poole was surprised by the regularity of the Wolverines’ clean looks.
“Being able to get the open looks that we had today was kind of like a shocker to us,” Poole said. “We felt a little disrespected.”
The opposite was true in Saturday’s Elite Eight. Florida State defenders presented a length and athleticism that peeved the Wolverines’ offensive cohesion, as Seminole bodies flew with so much as a look towards the hoop.
Ninety-nine points turned into 58. Sixty-two percent shooting fell to 39. Fourteen triples tumbled to four.
Now take a step back. Think of a Michigan basketball team enduring an atrocious shooting night and still beating formidable competition. Memories from years prior are probably not plentiful.
In Friday’s press conferences, Florida State players were asked what they thought were the Wolverines’ strengths. Shooting bigs, ball movement and marksmanship from deep were common answers. That’s been the perception around Michigan’s program throughout coach John Beilein’s tenure. In some ways, it’s a viewpoint that carries a slight in itself.
But that hasn’t been the reality this year. The Wolverines’ defense, as has been well documented, is vastly improved — a direct correlation to assistant coach Luke Yakich’s arrival in Ann Arbor.
What has changed as much as anything, however, is Michigan’s approach. When the offense goes awry, it becomes about grit over flash. Brawn over beauty. Substance over style.
That’s the Wolverines’ fresh mentality. It has been all year. That’s why they’re going to the Final Four, despite a porous shooting performance.
“That’s literally when the dog comes out of us,” said freshman forward Isaiah Livers. “Coach (Beilein), coach (Yakich), it’s all about the dog all the time. We love being at wars. Like you said, Texas A&M was pretty, but this was going to be a dog fight.
“That’s our slogan and something on our back right now. We’re out to show teams that we aren’t just an offensive team. We’re here to play defense, and we take pride in it.”
Fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson has seen the days of offensive cohesion being the lone root of Michigan victories. He himself is a sharp-shooter, known for that skill and finesse that so many of his teammates were recruited for.
When asked if the Wolverines could’ve won Saturday’s type of game in years prior, his answer was simple: “No.”
But on Saturday, with that grit absent in years’ prior, Michigan pulled it out.
“We (got) into a fight … we were going to be like that,” Beilein said.
One night, they can shoot the lights out. The next, they can scratch and claw the opponents’ eyes away. It’s an adaptable, sustainable model that guards against the game’s ebbs and flows, primed for a run at a national championship.
“Shots can’t always fall, but being tough … you can actually control that,” Livers said. “That’s how we approach the game every time.”
Eleventh-seeded Loyola-Chicago won’t be of the disrespecting type. The Ramblers will be scrappy and hungry, looking for a once-in-a-generation chance at a title. And if that means the Wolverines’ offense struggles to get in rhythm, Michigan still has its new form of elegance.
“We’ve had a lot of grinder games this year,” Yaklich said. “People call them ugly. I call them beautiful.”