INDIANAPOLIS — Fresh off a Big Ten Tournament championship, the Michigan men’s basketball team has experienced a rapid turnaround. After four games in as many days, the Wolverines will take the court once again Friday — albeit on a much bigger stage.
While the magic of March Madness has already struck Michigan once, the Wolverines will officially open play in the NCAA Tournament in what Michigan coach John Beilein called “the heart of the Big Ten”.
Bankers Life Fieldhouse — the site of the 2016 Big Ten Tournament — should bring back positive memories for the Wolverines. Last year, the arena played host to No. 8 seed Michigan’s miracle win over No. 1 seed Indiana on a buzzer-beating corner three from former wing Kam Chatman.
This season, the Wolverines (24-11) are far from underdogs. As the No. 7 seed in the Midwest Region, Michigan will take on No. 10 seed Oklahoma State (20-12) in the first round of the Big Dance. And while the Wolverines won their conference tournament in impressive fashion — defeating ranked opponents such as then-No. 13 Purdue and then-No. 24 Wisconsin — the Cowboys fell in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament to No. 23 Iowa State.
“The whole goal at Michigan is to win championships. And if you compete for a Big Ten championship, you’re going to compete for national championships,” Beilein said. “… Our league, year in and year out, can play with anybody in the country.”
Despite the disparities between the two sides, both teams have similarities leading up to Friday’s matchup. Michigan and Oklahoma State are both characterized by their shooting ability from anywhere on the court, and by their transition offense predicated on forcing and capitalizing on turnovers.
While the Cowboys score an average of 85.5 points per game compared to 74.8 for the Wolverines, Michigan boasts a higher scoring margin due to the strength of its defense. The Wolverines give up just 65.5 points per game, whereas Oklahoma State allows its opponents to score an average of 78.
The Cowboys carry the edge from beyond the arc, though, shooting 40.1 percent compared to 38.1 for Michigan. Its perimeter defense is better as well, as Oklahoma State allows its opponents to shoot 35.8 percent while the Wolverines give up a 37.8 shooting percentage.
All five Cowboy starters will prove to be a challenge for Michigan to contain, particularly guard Jawun Evans, wing Jeffrey Carroll and guard Phil Forte III — all of whom boast double-digit scoring averages at 19, 17.4 and 13.3, respectively. While the Wolverines are more used to that level of scoring from dominant big men in the Big Ten, they will have to adapt to the Big 12’s plethora of skilled guard play.
“It’s a balance,” Beilein said. “… You have to be prepared for a team that is going to be unique to you. At the same time, you can’t make yourself unique to yourself by trying to out-trick them.”
While Michigan must stand up to that test, Oklahoma State will have its own test to take. All five Wolverine starters also have the potential to pile it on in a hurry due to the success of their pick-and-pop game.
Four of them average double-digit point totals — senior guard Derrick Walton Jr., senior wing Zak Irvin, sophomore forward Moritz Wagner and redshirt sophomore forward DJ Wilson with 15.2, 12.8, 12 and 10.6, respectively — and the lone starter shy of the mark is just 0.9 points away.
“You pick your poison with whichever you choose (to guard),” said Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood. “You’ve got to make it difficult and not allow them to be as comfortable as they want to be, and then you’ve got to contest shots.”
Michigan gained national attention after the near-tragic plane incident last Wednesday, but the Wolverines gained national acclaim for turning that experience into a title run. According to Irvin, their mindset throughout the tournament centered on one key question:
“Why can’t this be one of the greatest stories ever told?”
While Michigan closed the first chapter Sunday, its postseason story continues Friday.